Melbourne Cricket Ground, Boxing Day 2017 (2017-12-26) by Cricket AustraliaCricket Australia
A lifetime of reflections on our sports-mad nation
With a career spanning more than 20 years, Gerard Whateley is a distinct voice guiding Aussies through some of the greatest sporting moments in history.
Known for combining authoritative journalism, sharp-eyed analysis, and passionate broadcasting, Whateley’s been a part of the most infamous AFL clashes, edge-of-your-seat Olympic medal wins, and many more iconic events along the way.
Here, comedian, writer, and sports fan Scott Dooley, sits down with his favorite commentator and broadcaster, Gerard Whateley, to discuss Aussie sportspeople on the world stage and the record-making moments back home at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
Melbourne Cricket Ground, Boxing Day 2017, Cricket Australia, 2017-12-26, From the collection of: Cricket Australia
Scott Dooley: You’ve called and witnessed so much, both from individuals and teams. In terms of sporting moments you’ve seen, is there one that jumps out as the best individual performance?
Gerard Whateley: It's such a big question isn't it... The Olympics are the pinnacle in sport, and then there’s something about Australians competing off-shore, separate to what goes on at home.
Kyle Chalmers winning the men’s 100m freestyle in the pool in Rio is the moment for me. It had been, for a couple of generations, something of a jinxed event for Australian swimmers — we had had favorites go and get beaten. And then this teenager, almost too young to understand the significance of the race and certainly the history of it. He swims the heat, he comes from a mile back at halfway, and he wins his heat, and you think, “ah, okay, there’s something going on there.” Then in the semi-final, he does the same again, comes from last. You’re alert to the possibility, there’s something building here. But still, he’s hardly favored going into a final on the world stage. He’s not a name, he doesn’t have the performances to command respect or fear. At the halfway mark he’s in seventh position and his Dad is sitting in the stand thinking, “just don’t finish last,” and 25 seconds later he stormed over the top — which is quite rare in a swimming race. He’s won the gold medal.
It was a spine-tingling moment. To see it unfold and have the privilege of conveying that — it’s one of the most thrilling things I’ve seen in sport. In two days, he went from a virtual unknown in world swimming to an instant household name. That’s the majesty, that’s the power of the Olympics.
By Michael RougierLIFE Photo Collection
Michael Rougier, 1968, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Scott: It’s quite reflective of us as a people, you know, the travelling, the backpacking around Europe. Our most famous victories, the ‘89 Ashes, Rugby Grand Slam, they’re all done away.
Gerard: That’s it. We’re an isolated island, but we like to think that we measure up. The way that we’ve always proven we do, no matter what theater it is, is to leave our shores and go and meet the world.
Scott: In all the things you’ve called and watched, is there a team that stands out? I often think about that 2000 Essendon side — it still stands alone for me as the best football team I’ve seen. Is there a side that stands out for you?
Gerard: It’s that measure of one great season versus an era. I’m a devotee of the Lions era because they did it at a time when all the disadvantages were stacked against the non-Victorian teams. They came to the MCG and they beat Essendon (residents of Melbourne), they beat Collingwood twice (residents of Melbourne). They got to the fourth Grand Final and I can remember going to the MCG that day and that palpable sense of “this hasn’t been done since the ‘30s with Collingwood, could a team really do that?”
The individuals from that team measure up. They resonate through the Hall of Fame, through career achievements, through a collective. So they resonate more strongly for me than say an Essendon team who did it in one year and probably missed the opportunity on either side of that. But to lay it out there and to do it, particularly for that non-Victorian team and to travel here, and with arguably the greatest player of all time as their coach — I feel like they’re the greatest team that I’ve seen.
Then we were spoiled to live through a time where we had a phenomenal Geelong side who played in a way that probably no team had ever done. And then Hawthorn who did it, they do their three in a row. They go through the school of hard knocks, they endure the disappointments and that fuels them to go and be the team that they promised. And I suspect, when all the measures are done, in terms of Hall of Fame inductions and the like, that they will have a collective similar to Brisbane.
Scott: It is funny thinking about that Brisbane side. That idea that Nigel Lappin is almost an afterthought when you’re talking about those fantastic players. In any other club, he’d be team of the Century captain kind of player. Unbelievable.
Gerard: And you’ve got these lovely collectives, that are given the names so affectionately — the fab four and the likes. You had [Jonathan] Brown and [Alastair] Lynch playing together. We’ll look back in generations and think about what an extraordinary collective they were.
Scott: Didn’t [Justin] Leppitsch try to say that to Leigh [Matthews] after one of them, “you know without us you’d be nothing” and Leigh said, “yeah, just the player of the Century.”
Gerard: Lovely interaction.
Scott: The thing that I think bonds us — and whenever I’ve got the footy on in the background — the one thing my wife says that I always say is “I was there that day.” Do you have one of these moments?
Gerard: Yeah, from my childhood! I was there the day of the underarm.
Scott: Oh! You’re kidding!
Gerard: I was there with Dad and Grandpa, I can just grasp the memories of it. I remember that it was hot as hell throughout the day, there’d been a disputed catch during the game, and I remember there was a sort of seething sense of unease that had built throughout the game and then the underarm at the end. But what I most remember is, we walked out at the end of the day, and Dad had a blue Ford Fairlane and the car had been broken into, and the radio had been stolen. It’s funny how a lot of things stitch together.
Scott: What about favorite memories?
Gerard: I’m a Geelong supporter obviously, so the ‘94 series. I would go with my now wife’s family, her Dad and a couple of her brothers — all great Cats fans. We were there on the night that Billy Brownless kicked a goal at the end to beat Footscray [now Western Bulldogs]. The next week was out at VFL Park where Geelong had late withdrawals — we felt like they were no chance and they belted Carlton.
The ‘94 preliminary final was my favorite game that I’ve been at as a fan. We were in the lower deck of the Southern stand, Gary Ablett Sr. takes the hand of god mark [one-handed] over the back of Mick Martin and kicks a goal after the final siren. I had a big hug with my future father-in-law in the aftermath of it. We didn’t hug on our wedding day when I married his daughter, but we hugged when Geelong made the Grand Final with a kick after the siren. That’s probably my favorite memory of being a fan at the footy.
Scott: What about as a caller?
Gerard: You’re always spoiled when you get to call your own team winning the flag.
Scott: Righto mate, you’ve had a good run, leave it alone.
Gerard: 2009 when the [Geelong] Cats beat Saint Kilda, I was calling the last passage of play and I remember it was so tight I said something like: “will there be a moment of inspiration that settles this match?”
Scott: Enter Matthew Scarlett…
Gerard: It’s called the Scarlett toe-poke — to Gary Ablett Jr., then [Paul] Chapman comes up and chips around the corner. I don’t remember when I stood up during that passage of play, but once I’d finished the call, I realized I was basically standing on the desk, hanging out the window with no memory of how I got into that position. That's sort of an indulgent moment.
But my favorite game to have called was the Giants vs. Bulldogs preliminary final of 2016. There was so much build up to it.
AFL 2016 Toyota AFL Grand Final - Sydney v Western Bulldogs (2016-10-01) by Michael WillsonAustralian Football League
AFL 2016 Toyota AFL Grand Final - Sydney v Western Bulldogs, Michael Willson, 2016-10-01, From the collection of: Australian Football League
Scott: There were so many storylines going into that game.
Gerard: The main thing I felt was the Bulldog pilgrimage to Sydney. They outnumbered the Giants fans, which was only a surprise in that it took the commitment of travel — you know, planes, trains, and automobiles — but they had essentially militarized as a people after they beat Hawthorn, guaranteed themselves the share of the tickets and then taken them up with gusto. There were Bulldogs people everywhere, from all the different generations. When they [the team] came out on the ground, it was like being at the old festival hall — there was almost a banging of steel seats and that sort of thing. There was something about the sound and something about the possibility of it, and it was primal.
It was the most magnificent game. It outstrips the Grand Final in my memory quite clearly, and they were beaten numerous times and they were definitely beaten in the last quarter but it was as if this group of men were all inspired by the generations that had gone past. And the Bulldogs had been the heartbreak story of preliminary finals, it was never about Grand Finals, it was always preliminary finals.
When that ball broke out and was with [Marcus] Bontempelli and he takes the shot to level things up. Just the moment of clarity and realization that the Bulldogs were going to win it, that’s my favorite game and favorite moment as a commentator. Then to take in what it meant to all those people...
Sydney Olympics Olympic Torch Arrives at Bondi Beach (2000)North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club
Sydney Olympics Olympic Torch Arrives at Bondi Beach, 2000, From the collection of: North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club
Scott: If you listen to Darcy, I think he said, “I’ve waited 25 years to say this, the Bulldogs are in the Grand Final.” You could feel the weight of it.
Gerard: I felt that as well. That’s the glory of sport, there was something mystical about what was happening. In a way, it was better not to try to understand it, but just to go with it. I went to the MCG that day to call it, feeling sure that the Bulldogs were going to win because that’s just the way sport works. There is something beyond our grasp with sport.
I like the fact that that team couldn’t go on to become a great team and they couldn’t repeat the deeds of even making finals. It makes that four week block, that one month, something from the heavens, something whispered, something foretold, and it’s something beyond sense and reason. That’s what we hope for in sport, it’s what we believe in, if that could happen, then this can happen. If everything comes down to logic, reason, and stats, and it all lives in an algorithm, then sports holds no interest to me at that level and I’ve seen too much to believe it can all be done in a computer and foretold and forecast.