History of Sport at the University of Melbourne
Students have participated in organised sport and recreation activity since the formation of the University in 1853. Students returning to the colonies from Eton, Harrow and the famous Rugby School brought back the prevailing wisdom dominating the British public school system: Mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body).
Students soon came together to compete against other Universities and local Clubs with the first recorded contest a cricket match against Emerald Hill in 1857. A rowing contest occurred on the Yarra in 1859 that led to the founding of the University’s first organised sporting Club, the boat Club. Intervarsity sport followed in 1870 with victories against the University of Sydney in both rowing and cricket at the MCG.
Tennis, athletics and lacrosse Clubs soon emerged and came together to form the Sports Union in 1904. In the following years boxing, golf, netball, skiing, and yachting Clubs were established. The University also adopted the British practice of awarding sporting Blues for outstanding sporting performance. In 1874 the land north of Tin Alley, the Sports Precinct, was given to the University for recreational purposes with the Oval and Pavilion established soon after. The Boat House beside the Yarra was built in 1908.
Sport at the University reached significant prominence in 1908 when University was admitted to the Victorian Football League (VFL) - the forerunner of the AFL. The Club enjoyed its best season in 1910, winning ten games out of eighteen, but the amateur students won just two games between 1911- 1915 before withdrawing during World War I.
After the Second World War, the arrival of returned servicemen and the children of post-war migrants to the University resulted in new activities including fencing, judo, badminton, basketball and soccer emerging. Franz Stampfl arrived in 1955 to teach physical education and successfully coach a generation of student athletes, many of whom represented Australia, including 1968 Olympic gold medallist Ralph Doubell.
The Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956 was an important catalyst for the development of sporting facilities at the University. The Beaurepaire Centre, built with generous support from Sir Frank Beaurepaire, incorporated an indoor swimming pool and stadium and the first hard surface running track was laid during this period. The Ski Lodge at Mt Buller was purchased in 1960 and around the same time a geodesic dome Hut was built at Mt Feathertop by the Mountaineering Club as an emergency shelter. The development in 1967 of the Sports Centre resulted in the Sports Precinct becoming one of the most distinctive and busiest multi-sport precincts in Australia.
The University has long celebrated the achievements of its teams, Clubs and athletes on the field and as community and industry leaders. World War II hero and humanitarian Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop became the first Victorian-born Rugby player to represent Australia in 1932 and many VFL and AFL players and administrators are counted in the alumni including 1946 Brownlow winner Dr Donald Cordner and current AFL CEO Gil McLachlan. The sporting alumni include Australian Test cricketers Paul Sheahan and Colin MacDonald, Olympian John Landy, and gold medalists Peter Antonie, Herb Elliott, Merv Lincoln, Kathy Watt and Cathy Freeman.
The Australian University Games commenced in the 1990’s and the University has continued to be a dominate force at a national level winning the Australian University Champion title 6 times, most recently in 2013. A great university sporting tradition also returned in 2009 with the Australian Boat Race, against Sydney University, reigniting a long-standing rivalry between the nation’s two preeminent universities.
The Beaurepaire Centre was redeveloped in 2004 (after a five year closure) and the sand based synthetic hockey surface added to the middle of the athletics track. The University committed to a substantial sports facility development program in 2009 commencing with the three storey extension to the east side of Boat House. The Lincoln Square Fitness Centre opened in 2012 on Bouverie St for the increasing campus population south of Grattan St and in 2013 the northern wing of the Sports Centre was refurbished to upgrade the squash courts and change rooms and provide two social and meeting rooms and administration offices.
The much anticipated redevelopment of the Pavilion was completed in April 2014 and named after Ernie Cropley in recognition of 50 years of service to the University and Sport as head curator and active member of three sporting Clubs. The naming of the Pavilion was possible due to the significant level of benefaction from the sporting alumni to the project. The University Blacks subsequently won their first VAFA Premier A flag since 1974 and the first for the University Football Club in the top division since University Blues won in 2004.
Melbourne University Sport (MU Sport) has now evolved from the volunteer-based Sports Union model into a professional managed sport department reporting to a University-appointed board. MU Sport continues to provide students with an opportunity to engage in regular physical activity and encourage quality performances from athletes, teams and Clubs to ensure that the University of Melbourne remains Australia’s leading sporting University.
For the comprehensive history of sport at the University of Melbourne, see The Ties that Bind by June E. Senyard.