Article by David Griffin
With COVID-19 crushing world economies and communities reeling, there has been little celebrate of late.
Whilst 2020 was a year to forget, for Professional athletics and the town of Wangaratta, 2021 will be a year to remember.
It’s the 100th running of the time-honoured Wangaratta Gift, one of the most prestigious race meetings on the Victorian Athletic League calendar.
Called the RSL Gift in its early years, it was first run in 1919, only going into recess during the second world war.
Over the years the picturesque Victorian country town has seen some magnificent athletes grace the grass track.
Probably the most well known was 1948 Olympic gold medallist, American Barney Ewell. Ewell won the 1950 Gift in 12.1 seconds, a record for the event.
It was also the place where world records tumbled. The two-mile professional world mark was smashed during the 60s by John Toleman, Harry Downs and Don Brain.
1981 Gift winner John DeCoite broke the world 300 yard world mark at ‘Wang’, in the sizzling time of 29.9 seconds.
In 1933 South Melbourne VFL/AFL footballer Austin Robertson broke the world professional record for the 140 yards. In 1968 the famous Bill Howard equalled it.
Robertson led the way for VFL/AFL footballers looking to keep fit and earn ‘a quid’ in the offseason running Pro. As it happened the Wangaratta proved to be a happy hunting ground for VFL/AFL players, particularly Essendon footballers over the years.
Two time premiership player Norm McDonald, was the first Essendon footballer to win the race. He took out the Gift in 1949.
Lance Mann, who played 77 games for the bombers between 1951 and 1959, breasted the tape in 1952. He also won the Bendigo and Stawell Gifts in the same year.
Former winger Gary Parkes was another Windy Hill native to carry on the tradition. 1978 was to be his year. Parkes played 103 VFL games (96 with the Bombers) and remembers the Wangaratta carnival fondly.
“It was one of the three or four gifts everyone wanted to win and I was lucky enough to win it. It is a great town ‘Wang’ and I had a lot of fun”, he said.
“As far as winning, for me it was about prestige. Sure the money was nice but I was just glad to win because I had spent a long time trying to win a decent race and it’s a hard sport”.
For the country Victorian town, ‘the gift’ was a highlight of the year, a sports extravaganza strewn across three days. In addition to the athletics, Bike racing, wood chopping and even a rodeo featured.
One of Australia’s greatest cyclists, Syd Patterson graced the bike track and world champion woodchopper David Foster made regular appearances. For the town it was a special event.
“It was a carnival under lights and it was an amazing atmosphere. 5,000 people came to watch in the evening. The bikes and woodchop were great. They turned all the lights off around the oval except the ones above the sprint track and it was just terrific”, Parkes recalled.
Rather comically and a sign of the times, Marlboro cigarettes was a major sponsor in 1978 and Parkes took home cartons of cigarettes as part of his prize. He didn’t smoke.
There have also been some brilliant and memorable professional performances at Wangaratta over the years.
Aussie Olympian Robert Ballard won his first ‘Wang’ Gift in 1989 and then backed it up 20 years later with a 2009 win.
Robert ‘Sam’ Kirsop won the double in 1990 taking home both the Gift and the 70 metres.
Cameron Dunbar made nine straight Gift finals during the mid-2000s, and local personality Wally Pasquali got the chocolates in 1995, one of only seven locals to win the event.
Kerry McConnen’s win in 1993 is also a highlight. After tearing a 20 mm gash in his calf in his semi-final win, his body went into shock and he was given oxygen in an ambulance.
With blood oozing out of his leg, McConnen ran the race of his life in the final and edged out Wangaratta stalwart Greg O’Keefe for the win. He went to hospital straight after the race.
Last year, 18 year old Gabby Boulton became the first local female winner of the women’s Gift. She follows in the footsteps of her father, two time ‘Wang’ Gift winner Jason Boulton.
Great athletic feats have been almost commonplace over the years but with time comes change, and the 2021 version of the Wangaratta Gift is somewhat different to earlier editions.
VFL or AFL Players, now fully professional, are forbidden to take part in extracurricular activities in the off season. In addition, the three-day extravaganza has been replaced by a one-day event, and the bikes and rodeo are nowhere to be seen.
With other athletic events falling by the wayside, the ‘Wang’ Gift has stood the test of time. Faced with extinction and through enormous community effort, the 2021 Wangaratta Gift stands as a monument to the people of Wangaratta and they should be proud of their contribution to Australian athletics history,
Left: Barney Ewell. Middle: Gary Parkes. Right: Walter Pasquali