Is the Stawell Gift the greatest race meet in the world?

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The 132nd edition of the iconic Stawell Gift athletics festival takes place at Central Park in western Victoria next weekend, with the highlight a legendary 120m sprint race. SPIKES offers 12 reasons why Stawell is king…

1 – Handicaps
The unique selling point of the event is that runners are handicapped and given varying marks according to form and ability. The idea being, in theory, that all the athletes will cross the finish gates (yes, gates) at the same time. The sight of top performers running off scratch and powering through from the back of the field is an awe-inspiring sight. Failing that, the slower athlete wins a close race and grabs their share of the limelight.

2 – Soul meet
If an event without a history is an event without a soul, then the Stawell Gift is the James Brown of athletics meets. Initiated by gold miners in 1878, a Victorian town bored by the predictable outcomes of normal athletics decided to introduce a handicap element to spice things up a bit. Astutely marketed down the years, the tiny town (population 6,000) transforms itself into an athletics Mecca every Easter weekend.   

3 – Gift distance
The festival highlight is the 120m sprint race, run up a slight gradient, which has witnessed its fair share of drama down the years. But why 120m, we hear you cry. Well, SPIKES has discovered that professional footracing was originally from England, and the distance of 120m (or 130 yards) is believed to have been the distance separating two pubs in the northern English city of Sheffield. 

4 – Grass
For the sprint races at Central Park (not the New York one) athletes compete on a grass track, in lanes separated by ropes. The competitors complete their challenge by blitzing through finish gates. As David Culbert, of event organisers Jump Media and Marketing, says: “the Olympic athletes find it quite bizarre”.

5 – Razzmatazz
A professional event from the outset, the event has attracted some of the world’s top athletes, including former Olympic 100m champion Linford Christie and 2000 Olympic Games 400m gold medallist Cathy Freeman. This year, former world 100m record holder Asafa Powell will try to win the 120m race off scratch. The Jamaican’s presence has “created the biggest buzz here for years”, says Culbert.

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Bonzer: the Stawell Gift has been graced by the likes of Cathy Freeman (centre)

6 – Bookmakers
Yes, yes, we know the potential risks of betting in sport… But the fact that punters plunge millions of Australian dollars each year on the outcome of the Stawell races, shows a huge appetite and interest in athletics, which we rather like.

7 – Young guns
Joshua Ross was a fledgling runner when he triumphed off a 7m start to take the 120m sprint in 2003. Encouraged to train seriously for the sport on the back of his success, Ross ‘The Boss’ went on to appear at the 2004 and 2012 Olympic Games for Australia. Describing Central Park as his ‘spiritual home’ Ross claimed a second victory in 2005 and is back this year aiming to become the first ever three-time winner.

8 – Variety show
More than 700 runners of all ages will compete in more than 60 events, ranging in distances from 70m right up to 3200m (about two miles). This is a genuine festival for all runners.

9 – Terminology
Cheeky Australian slang has brought us such soaring phraseology as ‘budgie smugglers’, and that local wit is on display in full at Stawell. 
A ‘bushranger’ or ‘stall smokie’, an athlete who has been hiding behind the trees and will step out at Easter Weekend; an ‘Easter bunny’, any athlete who thinks they have a good chance but is deluded; and ‘the handbrake’, are all part of the Stawell lexicon, and add to the unique charm of the event. ‘The handbrake’ refers to athletes that deliberately run slower in the weeks preceding the Stawell Gift, in order to skew their handicap. The scoundrels!

10 ­– Cash money
With 120,000 Australian dollars (US £125,000, UK £82,000) of prize money up for grabs at the Stawell Gift the meet does not lacking in financial incentives. The winner of the 120m race alone bags $40,000 Aussie dollars… The inaugural winner, farmer Williams Jackson Millard, earned £20 for his efforts. Meanwhile, the champion of the first Old Man’s Race won a pig.

11 – Carnival
The weekend is about much more than running. The best dressed lady will be chasing a $1000 first prize and kids get the chance to try out a Little Athletics clinic. For those wanting a little liquid refreshment, check out the XXXX Gold Beer Garden Retreat for a tinny or two.  

12 – Public interest
Upwards of 10,000 spectators from across Australia will descend on Stawell across the Easter Weekend, and the event is screened live on TV One in Australia, and right across the Asia-Pacific region.

13 – One extra reason, for luck
The fastest-ever winning time running off scratch for the 120m was 12 seconds dead, achieved by the wonderfully named Madagascan sprinter Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa.