City shaped by love of sport

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IT was mayhem as I had never experienced before or since. I was poolside when Kieran Perkins won gold in Atlanta and trackside when Cathy Freeman won in Sydney; but Canberra in 1989 was something else in terms of sheer pandemonium.

As we celebrate Canberra’s Centenary it is worth looking at sporting events that put the city on the map.

In 1989, with five rugby league rounds to go, the Raiders were in seventh place and looked like missing the finals.

The team then proceeded to win nine games in a row culminating in the premiership with an extra time victory over Balmain in the grand final. The reaction in Canberra is hard to put into words, but it was akin to an emotional volcano within the city.

Bars and clubs were crammed with people, some of whom had only a passing interest in rugby league, but had become captivated by the Raiders’ surge into the decider.

At the end of extra time thousands of people headed on to the streets waving flags, celebrating like they had never celebrated before. The Canberra airport hadn’t experienced anything like it, as fans bombarded the terminal to welcome the team home from Sydney. It was impossible at times to see the players as supporters, decked in club colours, mobbed the players.

In the days that followed, the city showed no signs of letting up.

The street parade from Queanbeyan to Canberra was something to behold with an estimated 20,000 people greeting the team when they arrived at the steps of the Canberra Theatre. The reception was bigger than anything before or since.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke opened up The Lodge that night; the sight of players sliding down the banisters is an image that is hard to erase.
The premiership trophy was damaged as it fell off the back of a ute, which was carrying Laurie Daley from Queanbeyan to Canberra. The quest to repair the trophy took on a life of its own.

In my mind it was Canberra’s most significant sporting moment. But there have been others when many in the ACT felt that Canberra was the centre of the sporting universe.

There was mass celebration when the Brumbies won their two championships in Super Rugby; people involved in Australian Rules still speak about the day the ACT defeated Victoria in a State of Origin game at Manuka Oval in 1980. The ACT side included the likes of “Cowboy” Neale and Alex Jesaulenko.

The Canberra Cannons were the toast of the city in the 1980s when they won three NBL titles. At certain times within the basketball season it was standing room only at the Palace, as it was known then.

The Canberra Capitals have won seven WNBL Championships and are, quite rightly, deemed to be the most successful sporting team from the ACT on the national stage in week-in-week-out competitions.

There has also been success for the softball and hockey sides in national championships.

There was a magic moment when the ACT men’s eight won rowing’s prestigious Kings Cup and the Canberra Comets’ memorable win over Victoria in the domestic one-day cricket series.

And who could forget the unbelievable season in 2011/2012 with Canberra United winning the W League title?

There have also been individual performers such as Heather McKay, Robert de Castella, Michael Milton, Michael Rogers and the list goes on.

At this time, as we celebrate Canberra’s 100 years, it is worth noting the role sport has played in the evolution of the city’s personality.

It was stated many times during the aftermath of the 1989 Raiders’ victory that Canberra had shed perceptions that it was a city of monuments and public servants and little else. We who live here have always known that this is a great place to live!

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Tim Gavel
Journalist and ABC sports broadcaster

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