Leading Australian athletics


Nearly 50 years ago a pioneer from Geelong forever changed the face of Australian athletics when he founded Little Athletics. And with the official opening last weekend of the new Athletics House at Albert Park, Victorian athletics is again leading the nation.

The building at Lakeside Stadium not only houses Athletics Victoria and Little Athletics, but they share the same office space. And it’s not one organisation at one end of the office and the other at the opposite, but an assimilated workplace where like roles sit side-by-side and where efficiencies are found in jointly appointing new staff as vacancies arise. (Athletics Australia and Little Athletics Australia also have their offices in the building, on separate floors.)

It’s a revolutionary development for the two houses alike in dignity, whose civil blood, and that of their kindred organisations, too often in the past made civil hands unclean.

The historical division between Little Athletics and ‘senior’ athletics – one which to this day haunts and stunts athletics as the most fragmented sport in Australia – has its origins in Geelong, where in September 1963 Trevor Billingham, the arena Manager of the Geelong Centre of the Victorian Amateur Athletics Association (now Athletics Victoria), was deeply moved by having to turn away a 10-year-old and two 11-year-olds from a competition at Landy Field due to an age restriction that required athletes be at least 14 years of age.

“One little fellow cried and they walked off, all dressed in their white shorts, shirts, socks and sandshoes. You just don’t forget those sorts of things,” Billingham is quoted in Little Athletics Australia’s official history as having vividly recalled.

The following year, when the majority of attendees at a coaching clinic were of a similar age, and reminded by his earlier experience, Billingham hastily organised a one-hour athletics competition within a fortnight for ‘boys and girls not old enough to compete in the afternoon.’ 70 children attended and Little Athletics was born.

Trevor Billingham (1935-2005)
But how to organise such events? Billingham’s Geelong VAAA colleagues suggested more focus needed to be placed organising the open aged competition, so by necessity he empowered the parents of the children participating in Little Athletics to have ownership of it and to to run their children's activities. It was a model that worked, and with a near religious fervour Billingham proselytised other communities to form their own Little Athletics Centres. It took off like wild fire.

Revolutionary as he might have been, don’t for a moment think that Billingham was a disgruntled renegade looking to destabilise athletics. Rather, he had the sport deep in his heart, and after serving as paid Secretary/Manager of the Victorian Little Athletics Association from 1970-1974 until a clash in ideologies and personalities saw his resignation, he returned to ‘senior athletics’ administration in 1975 when was elected as Secretary of the VAAA for a year, transforming the role from a half-pay one to full-time role.

Both Little Athletics and their senior counterparts drifted apart from their outset, with Little A’s reliance on volunteer parental operation and governance being both its greatest strength and greatest weakness, while senior athletics struggled to break off its conservative shackles based in amateurism and gender-based administrative bodies. Both were developing their identity, but all too often, separately.

It’s why the advent of Athletics House is such a monumental event. The leadership to make it happen has come from the CEOs of Athletics Victoria and Little Athletics Victoria, Nick Honey and Dean Paulin, who withstood the cries of ancestral voices prophesying war to deliver a professional working environment that will develop Victorian athletics and which is the blueprint for the sport’s development in other states as well as nationally.

When Athletics House was opened last weekend the only dedication that was made was to name the venue’s function room after Cathy Freeman. If there were ever to be a name conferred to the whole building, there would be no more apt name than Trevor Billingham House. He’d be proud of what his athletics progeny, in both organisations, have achieved.


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