The Victorian Athletic League was established in 1895. Professional running in Australia began in the gold-mining days and boomed in areas where miners were prospecting and digging for gold. The miners raced against each other for the gift of a gold nugget offered by the local publican or mine owner. The miners raced over various distances but the main race was run over the Sheffield distance of 130 yards.
In the 1860’s big money began to creep into the sport which attracted a wealth of athletic talent. Competitions took on a carnival atmosphere and crowds flocked to see local champions.
In April 1878, nearly two thousand people witnessed the running of the first Stawell Easter Gift which was won by twenty-four year old farmer W.J.Millard.
The sport of professional running continued to grow. Big prizemoney and heavy betting attracted talented athletes as well as a range of shady characters. By the early 1890’s, the sport of professional running was in crisis. Athletes running under false names, hiding past performance, corrupt officials and other controversies led the need to establish a controlling body for professional running in Victoria.
The Victorian Athletic League was formed on 15th April 1895 when RV Lewis of Benalla was elected president and Hastings Bell of Stawell was appointed secretary. Originally the League was administered from Stawell and formulated rules and regulations for country towns that conducted sports carnivals. It also acted as arbitrator in any disputes arising at those carnivals.
In 1902 a regular office was established in Melbourne and the Victorian Athletic League began to promote the sport of professional running. Carnivals were held in Melbourne and major Victorian towns and became extremely popular with the sporting public.
1917, a dispute over prizemoney led to a breakaway group, the Victorian Athletic Association, being formed and conducting event in opposition to the Victorian Athletic League.
In 1921, through the mediation of the Stawell Athletic Club, the Victorian Athletic League and the Victorian Athletic Association were merged. ES Herring of Maryborough was elected president and Joe Bull appointed as secretary. The Victorian Athletic League established an office in Brunswick and held mid week sports meetings were held at White City in Tottenham, at the Exhibition Grounds and at the Monodrome.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, popularity of professional running grew tremendously and the VAL staged World Sprint Championships.
At the outbreak of World War II, many Victorian Athletic League clubs abandoned their meetings. However, the federal cabinet granted permission for the Victorian Athletic League to conduct footrunning at Maribyrnong for the benefit of athletes on leave from the armed forces and men employed in essential services.
After World War II the Victorian Athletic League gained strength and had nearly fifteen hundred registered runners, three hundred trainers and was conducted sports carnivals at seventy centres across Victoria from mid November to early June.
By the early 1960’s, interest in professional running had waned. The number of registered runners had declined and only twenty-eight carnivals were held across Victoria.
In an effort to revive the sport, the Victorian Athletic League invited champion international athletes such as Bob Hayes, Alan Simpson and Robbie Hutchison to compete in Australia. In 1969, the St Kilda club staged the richest footrace in the world with a first prize of $2,000.
In 1977, the Victorian Athletic League undertook substantial administrative changes becoming an incorporated company, establishing a computerised record of handicaps and results, and commissioning the use of an electronic race finish recording machine.
After years of segregation between amateur and professional athletics, in 1986 saw the dawning of open athletics when Stawell Gift winners Chris Perry and John Dinan competed for Australia at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
In recent years, the Victorian Athletic League has extended its athletic format beyond club carnivals. The League moved into conducting special events such as the famous Dandy Dollar Dash at VFL/AFL football matches, the Moomba Mile run down Bourke Street in the Melbourne CBD, 400 metres series’ during international cricket matches at the MCG and sprint events during horse races at Moonee Valley.
In 2001, the Victorian Athletic League moved offices to be co-located with Athletics Victoria at Olympic Park in Melbourne. The League began to form a strong alliance with Athletics Victoria through formal affiliation, sharing resources and establishing a dual-registration process.
For further information, please visit www.val.org.au