It’s said that visiting Tasmania can be like going back in time. While this may be due to the island’s extensive colonial and convict history, combined with a healthy dose of mainland snobbery, in a sporting sense it’s not far wrong, at least during the Christmas and New Year period.
This is when the venerable Christmas Carnivals Series kicks into gear, a running cycling and woodchopping jamboree that covers Northern Tasmania like a travelling circus between Boxing and New Years , just like it has done since the late 19th Century. Unlike many other sporting competitions of this vintage, The Carnivals and its mainland cousins such as The Stawell Gift and The Bay Sheffield, have largely remained intact, even as the barrier between professional and amateur competition which used to set them apart, has long disintegrated. Now the very best runners and cyclists can earn far more while still pursuing their Olympic dreams, making handicap running on a grass track or cycling on a thin strip of bitumen circling a football ground, seem somewhat antiquated.
Like all antiques, what gives them their charm, can also make them impractical and irrelevant. In a world where athletics and track cycling struggle for attention outside the Olympics, their time honoured professional versions seem destined to join Royal Tennis as exhibits in a sporting museum; to be observed for their history and nostalgia, but almost meaningless in a competitive sense.
The Carnivals however, seem determined to stave off this fate for as long as possible. Their epitaph has been written repeatedly over the last 30 years and yet here they are still limping on into their second century. In the 1980’s the series was almost on its deathbed, yet the embrace of Olympic athletes during the 90’s - most notably Cathy Freeman - revived the series to almost unprecedented heights. It was during these halcyon days that my own association with The Carnivals, first as a spectator, then as a competitor, began.
I , like thousands of others, was drawn in by the stardust of Olympic level athletes such as Freeman (in her pre-Sydney Olympics pomp), Shane Kelly, Craig Mottram, Tatiana Gregoriava and Jana Pittman, coming and racing against the locals. They gave the series a point of attraction that obscured the fact that the type of events they were competing in were almost obsolete. No one cared that the world’s fastest female 400m runner was giving her opponents a 20 or 30m head start, racing around the edge of a country football ground while wearing a red vest. The novelty outweighed the actual outcome. Even if the athletes themselves didn’t always seem to be giving their all (this was usually brushed aside as just being part of their preparation), us locals bathed in their collective glow and lapped up their attention.
And soon enough I was amongst it. As a young middle distance runner I graduated from Little Athletics, to the senior club competition and eventually onto the ‘pros’. Running in the mile races at Latrobe on Boxing Day, Burnie on New Years and the mile and 800 at Devonport in between, was to be the zenith of my brief sporting career. It was to be the only time I would truly be able to test my wares against elite level competition. Like a country galloper lining up in the Melbourne Cup, the beauty of handicap racing meant that I was able to compete well above my station. At least in theory that’s how it works. In truth, the closest I got to Craig Mottram in the Devonport Mile was when he swept passed me with over a lap to go, despite giving me more than a 100 meters head start. I had to be content with victories in off Broadway events like the Wynyard Mile and a third placing at Ulverstone. The final event of the season would be down on the East Coast at St Helens where competing in the nude gift after a dozen pints at the bar was just as fiercely contested as any event on the track.
Now though the salad days are well and truly over. My running career ended with my arrival at University and these days the Olympic athletes largely stay at home for Christmas. You can sell the locals competing against the best, but the locals against the locals lacks the same cache’. Smaller carnivals like Wynyard and Ulverstone have gone the way of the dodo and it wouldn’t surprise if health and safety regulations have done the same to the nude gift at St Helens. And once again the future of The Carnivals are being questioned.
Against this backdrop I decided to see for myself. I’d seen reports on the news of the Latrobe Carnival on Boxing Day, where the action was played out before empty grandstands and a protest against the winner of the Wheelrace seemed to be the only event of note. Call it curiosity, or plain old boredom, but for the first time since I actually gave up running I decided I was going to attend as a paying spectator; to see if the old magic really had died.
I rocked up to the first of two nights at the Devonport Carnival and soon realised why crowds were down; an Adult ticket and a program cost me north of 20 bucks. Feeling somewhat lighter in the hip pocket region I walked under the Devonport Oval’s rickety old wooden grandstand to find a surprisingly large crowd had filled it. Not the heaving masses of a decade ago, but hardly the sort of crowd that spoke of an event in its death roes. I wandered the concourse in search of people I recognised; those I used to run with; people I used to go to school with. I soon realised this was pointless; they weren’t any. Those who were there had once thing in common; they were old. The people sitting in the grandstand were doing what they’d been doing for years. The carnivals were part of their Christmas/New Year tradition. Evidence suggested though that younger generations hadn’t followed them. Maybe when they die out the carnivals finally will too.
Like the spectators, the sound of the carnivals has remained the same. As cyclists whisked around the track the excited high pitched whine of cycling commentator Steve Daley filled the air just as I remembered it. His vocabulary hasn’t advanced much either. A cyclist advancing through the field or making a break is still ‘putting POWWWER to pedal’, just as those at the rear are still ‘stone motherless!’. In contrast Brian Paine’s understated delivery still describes the running events, his tone barely changing from the first heat of the 70m to the final of the Gift. Despite being the headline event of the evening I don’t actually realise the finals of the Devonport Gift are on until the winners breast the ribbon at the finish line and collapse from exhaustion and a pile of coaches, family and friends. The finals are being held in daylight. With Devonport traditionally being a night carnival, the heats are usually held in late afternoon before the finals take place under lights. But a quick glance at my program shows that I’m behind the times. The carnival now starts at 2pm not 6. I’ve missed more than half of it.
The Mens Gift is won by Hobart runner Andrew Robertson, who, as we’re reminded repeatedly for the next 15 minutes, won the this race last year before going on to become the first Tasmanian to win the Stawell Gift at Easter. Chatter inevitably turns to good omens and the possibility of a repeat. Robinson’s coach is Tasmanian athletics luminary Ray Quarrell, who apart from being a fine pro runner himself, coached perennial Stawell contender and multiple Devonport winner Simon Bresnehan. Quarrel is from Dunally near Hobart and his house was destroyed in the bushfires there nearly a year ago. His emotion at the finish can only have been partly because of the result.
The different program has also changed the nature of my old event, the Devonport Mile. Like the Gift and Wheelrace final, the Mile was always run under the cloak of darkness. The organisers presumably thought that it would work better under lights like Friday Night Football. Now though the sun is still high in the sky as the runners finish their warms ups and approach their handicap marks which stretch three quarters of the way around the track. One of the beauties of professional middle distance running is that they are a triumph of women’s liberation, as the girls really do take on the blokes, though there are still separate male and female winners. The girls are usually handicapped out over 300m, just in front of the men in their 50’s, who in a moment of either inspiration or madness, have taken up middle distance running in middle age. They start almost on the same straight as the backmarkers on scratch. With two time winner Craig Mottram no longer deeming the Christmas Carnivals a requisite challenge, organisers have found a posse of Kenyan’s to take his place.
Sadly, by dint of their ability and nationality, they’re given a mark that makes winning a hopeless task. Unlike Mottram in his heyday, this band of Kenyans can only begin to make their way through the field as the bell is being rung for the last lap. By then James Hansen from Launceston had stolen the march and went on to claim a strong win. Madeline Murphy from Riana was the first female home.
By now the shadows were lengthening. Where the oncoming of darkness once heralded the arrival of the feature events, it now had punters heading for the exits. Of course, this was only the halfway point of this Devonport Carnival, with the Devonport Wheel being the headline act of the following night’s action. And beyond this, the New Years Carnival at Burnie, would bring in 2014 in a few days time. But tonight’s spectators including myself, had seen enough.
Most making their way under the grandstand and out to the carpark, were satisfied having seen another night of Christmas Carnivals entertainment. I left satisfied that the whole thing still exists at all.