Athletics & Australian Identity

By National Portrait Gallery

Reflecting Australia’s obsession with sport, the National Portrait Gallery has many diverse portraits of Australian sportspeople. Let’s take a closer look at some of the athletic achievers from our collection and their stories that have shaped our national identity.

Her Excellency Marjorie Jackson-Nelson AC CVO MBE by Avril ThomasNational Portrait Gallery


Athletics in Australia has produced many sporting legends. Evidence shows Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples engaged with athletic activity well before colonisation, however European settlers brought with them athletic competition as we know it today. The earliest known competition in Australia was in Sydney, in 1810, where Dicky Dowling won a 50 yards sprint, while the first amateur athletics club was formed in Adelaide, South Australia in 1867. Some of Australia's greatest household names have come from the track.

Master Johnny Day, Australian Champion Pedestrian (c.1866) by UnknownNational Portrait Gallery

The sport of competitive walking—more commonly known as pedestrianism — was at its height in Australia, Britain and the United States in the 1860s to the 1870s.

It was a lucrative glamour sport where competitors would race against each other or a clock to win prize money, with spectators paying to watch, bet on their favourites and cheer them on. Cycling led to its decline in popularity.

William Francis King, 'The Flying Pieman' (c. 1869) by Joseph DavisNational Portrait Gallery

The Sydney identity the 'Flying Pieman' was known for his pedestrian feats, but these were achieved before professional competition began in earnest.

Master Johnny Day, Australian Champion Pedestrian (c.1866) by UnknownNational Portrait Gallery

Johnny Day became one of Australia’s first international sporting heroes as an undefeated world-champion juvenile walker.

Born in Victoria in 1856, he competed in Australia and London, winning 101 matches by the age of ten, the age he is in this image.

In an article that appeared in the Victorian newspaper The Hamilton Spectator on 26 November 1870, Johnny’s father Thomas Day states that he had won ‘over £20,000 for different parties in England.’

Towards the end of the 1860s, Day’s name started appearing in Australian racing columns, and in 1870, Day was noted as jockey of the Melbourne Cup winning horse Nimblefoot.

The adult fate of Johnny Day remains a mystery. Please contact us; if you have any information to share!

Cathy Freeman (1994) by Montalbetti+CampbellNational Portrait Gallery

Cathy Freeman is a proud Kuku Yalanji, Burri Gubba woman who won her first race at a schools athletics carnival at age eight.

At fourteen, Cathy told her vocational officer that her only career goal was to win an Olympic medal. By then, she had already won national titles in high jump, the 100, 200 and 400 metre sprints.

She won her first gold medal in the 4 x 100 metre relay at the 1990 Commonwealth Games aged sixteen.

'The dream evolved throughout my childhood and by the time I was at high-school I wasn’t thinking about anything else. The first thing I remember about running is how happy it made me feel.'

Cathy became the first Australian Aboriginal woman to win a gold medal at an international athletics event in 1990 and, two years later, the first Australian Aboriginal to compete at the Olympics.

She was also the first person to win both the Young Australian of the Year (1991) and the Australian of the Year (1998).

Cathy’s greatest moment came at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

She was the first competing athlete in history to light the Olympic flame, this was an emotional moment for the nation symbolising the Australian people’s desire to reconcile with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

She claimed gold in the 400m in front of proud home crowd to realise her lifelong dream. During her victory lap she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags.

Cathy is a hero in the eyes of Australians but none more so than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

In 2007, she established the Cathy Freeman Foundation to help children reach their goals and meet their potential through education.

'Every child deserves the right to reach their potential and achieve their gold medal moment in life.'

Betty Cuthbert (2002) by Andrew DalyNational Portrait Gallery

Betty Cuthbert was a record setting and gold medal winning sprinter.

'Ever since I was eight I knew I could run fast, because at school I beat all the boys, and my teacher encouraged me to join the running club. From the age of 13, when we had Jubilee school races, I won the 75 yards, and then I used to win the state championships and it gradually progressed ... It's funny looking back on it, I wasn't fanatical about running - I never had any heroes or anything - it all just happened.'

In 1956 Cuthbert bought tickets to watch the Melbourne Olympic Games but ended up as a competitor!

Here she won gold in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay, earning the name, ‘Golden Girl.’

Later in life she developed multiple sclerosis, becoming a supporter for research into the disease.

The Athletic Stadium in Homebush is named in her honour.

Kurt Fearnley (2012) by Adam KnottNational Portrait Gallery

Coming from a competitive sporting family it was no surprise Kurt Fearnley would end up as a world champion athlete.

Despite being born without the lower part of his spine, he participated in football and other sporting activities.

He had his first race at the age of fourteen in a normal everyday wheelchair.

His talent and willpower was so evident that his hometown in Carcoar raised funds to purchase a racing chair and sent him to take part in a wheelchair racing competition in the United States.

In his career he had incredible achievements and garnered support from fans through his attitude and approach. He showed determination and spirit, fighting through pain barriers and was a good sport – acting the same way in defeat as in with victory.

'Some of the most memorable moments are the hardest moments — they're the things that you eventually become most proud of.'

Some amazing racing stories include…

Pushing himself so hard in his inaugural Paralympic marathon that he blacked out going over Sydney's Anzac Bridge and came to rolling backwards down the hill managing to recover in time to win the race and…

…in the closing kilometres of the Athens Paralympics marathon, he won gold despite a left tyre that punctured on the streets of the Greek capital!

Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by:
- Annette Twyman, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Adair, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Dawson, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Kirstin Gunether, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Emily Casey, Program Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Johanna McMahon, Art History intern, Australian National University.

This exhibit was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery.

We would like to acknowledge the generous support from all artists and organisations for letting us include these works.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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