Australian World Champions

Champions, fierce competitors and people who contributed to sport and community throughout their lives, these Australian sportspeople achieved great success on the world stage.

By Australian Sports Museum

Scarf, commemorating World Champion sculler William Beach c1880sAustralian Sports Museum

World beaters

These world champions beat all comers to stamp their mark on international sporting competition. 

William “Bill” Beach was a professional sculler or rower and one of Australia’s earliest world champions. He held the World Sculling Champion title from 1884 until he retired undefeated in 1887.

Beach became the champion sculler of the world at age 33 when he defeated reigning champion Canada’s Ned Hanlan on the Parramatta River in Sydney in 1884. In a race of 3 miles 330 yards(5.13km) Beach won by several lengths in a time of 20m.28s.

Beach successfully defended his World Title seven times over the next three years, announcing his retirement after his final race. At the time, he was the only World Champion sculler to retire undefeated, and his seven wins out of seven races was considered unique.

Pair of green bicycle racing shoes, worn by Sir Hubert Opperman c1940sAustralian Sports Museum

Sir Hubert Opperman, OBE, was an Australian cyclist, whose feats in the 1920s and 1930s earned him international acclaim. He began competitive racing as a teenager and came third in a cycling race at 17 in 1921, keeping pace with the more experienced riders.

Opperman was 20 when he won the Australian national road race title for the first time in 1924. He was the only rider to win the title four times, winning again in 1926, 1927 and 1929.

Postcard advertising Tour de France, 1928 (1928)Australian Sports Museum

Opperman contested the 1928 Tour de France at the head of the Ravat-Wonder-Dunlop team, the first Australian/New Zealand team to contest the race. He was joined by fellow Australians Ernie Bainbridge and Percy Osborn and Harry Watson of New Zealand.

Opperman finished 19th overall.

Cap, worn by Hubert Opperman c1929 (1929)Australian Sports Museum

After the Tour he raced in the Bol d'Or 24-hour classic, where his team claimed he was sabotaged by having his chains filed, forcing him to use a heavy commuter bike unsuited for racing.

By the time his preferred bicycle was fixed, the race leaders were almost 20 laps in front. Opperman rode for 17 hours without dismounting, winning the race to the rapturous support of the French crowd. He rode on another 80 minutes to break the 100km record.

The effort endeared him to the French.

Booklet, "The Amazing Oppy"Australian Sports Museum

In 1931 "Oppy" won the world’s then longest non-stop race, the 1166km Paris-Brest-Paris, in a record 49 hours and 23 minutes. He went on to set numerous endurance records in Europe and Australia, before retiring from cycling at age 36.

Netball dress worn by Liz Ellis at the Netball World Championships, New Zealand, 2007 (2007)Australian Sports Museum

Liz Ellis is one of the most respected names in Australian netball, with a remarkable 18-year career at the elite level of the game. Making her national debut in 1993, Ellis represented Australia in four World Championships in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007 – winning gold in 1995, 1997 and 2007. Ellis represented Australia at three Commonwealth Games, winning gold medals at the Kuala Lumpur Games in 1998 and Manchester in 2002. She represented Australia 122 times and was captain from 2004 to 2007.

Positional bib worn by Liz Ellis at the 1999 World Netball Championships, New Zealand (1999)Australian Sports Museum

In 2005, Ellis suffered a knee injury in a match against New Zealand that almost ended her career. Following a full knee reconstruction, Ellis recovered to captain Australia to victory against New Zealand in the World Championships in 2007. She announced her retirement a few days later.

Surfboard, used by Layne Beachley to win her first World Championship in 1998Australian Sports Museum

Layne Beachley is one of Australia’s most successful surfers, winning seven World Championships throughout her career. She became a professional surfer at 16 and by age 20 was ranked number 6 in the world. In 1998 she won the Women's ASP World Champion title riding the board shown here, beginning a run of six consecutive world titles to 2003.

Surfboard, used by Layne Beachley during the 2008 Pro Circuit (2008)Australian Sports Museum

Beachley won numerous awards and honours, including the Australian Sports Medal in 2000 and Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year Award in 2004, and has been inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.

She rode this board during the 2008 Pro Circuit.

Two photographs of Walter Lindrum, notes to Bill Sweeting on reverse (1926)Australian Sports Museum

Walter Lindrum is regarded as the greatest billiards player to ever pick up a cue. He achieved 57 world records and his numerous aggregate, opening break, and speed records brought about changes to the rules to try and curb his game.

Poster for Birmingham Gazette, "Lindrum Plays Before the King" c1930Australian Sports Museum

Learning his craft at his family's pool hall in Melbourne, Lindrum was competing professionally from the age of 13. In 1929 he travelled to England where he dominated the billiards scene for the next four years. He regularly played games on a handicap of 7000 to give his competitors a chance. During World War II, he staged almost 4000 exhibition games around Australia, raising more than £1 million for charity.

Hand coloured photograph of Walter Lindrum & Ramsay MacDonald, c1930Australian Sports Museum

Lindrum was famed in the UK. He met Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and played before King George V who gave him a set of cufflinks which he wore almost every day for the rest of his life.

Some of Lindrum's records may never be broken due to the rule changes that were introduced to curb his play.

Poster, Empire Title Fight - John McCluskey v Henry Nissen, 1971 (1971)Australian Sports Museum

Champion fighters

Lionel Rose, Les Darcy and Henry Nissen were champions in the boxing ring.

Pair of miniature boxing gloves, signed by Lionel RoseAustralian Sports Museum

Lionel Rose is a name synonymous with boxing in Australia. He is remembered not only as a world champion and one of the finest fighters to ever pull on the gloves, but as an Australian icon and principled man who took a stand on social issues.

Various paper based objects associated with Lionel Rose, 1969-70Australian Sports Museum

Rose was the first Indigenous Australian to win a world title. He became a national hero when he beat Japan’s Fighting Harada for the world bantamweight title in Tokyo in February 1968. On his return to Australia, a crowd of some 250,000 people celebrated his triumph at the Melbourne Town Hall.

His victory came shortly after the 1967 Referendum in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to change the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census. The celebration of his win was emblematic of the changing attitudes and spirit of the times.

Rose defended his title twice, before losing it in 1969. He supported the Aboriginal rights movement, urging the many politicians he met to improve outcomes for Aboriginal people. He was one of the first Australian sportspeople to refuse to tour South Africa during the era of apartheid.

Pamphlet advertising a film on Les Darcy, "The Heart of a Champion" (1915)Australian Sports Museum

Les Darcy was an extraordinary boxing talent who sadly died before the world saw his full potential. His record of 52 wins from 56 fights is outstanding, particularly as 32 of his wins were by knockout and his four losses were at the beginning of his career.

Darcy began boxing professionally at age 15, and was immediately winning bouts against older and more experienced fighters. He won the Australian middleweight title in 1914 and at age 19 he became the Australian world middleweight champion. In early 1916 he took the Australian heavyweight champion title.

Programme, World's Middleweight Championship - Jimmy Clabby and Les Darcy, October 23 1915 Programme, World's Middleweight Championship - Jimmy Clabby and Les Darcy, October 23 1915 (1915)Australian Sports Museum

Darcy was a folk hero, but was denounced by the patriotic press in Australia for failing to enlist to fight in World War I. He wanted to fight in the United States as part of his quest to become undisputed world champion. However men of fighting age were denied passports so Darcy stowed away on a ship bound for New York on the eve of the contentious and ultimately unsuccessful 1916 conscription referendum. He was branded a coward and attacked by politicians and the media.

Sheet of promotional writing paper, Les Darcy - American TourAustralian Sports Museum

The controversy dogged him in the US. Fights were cancelled and he was banned in some states.

While training for a fight in Memphis he collapsed, and died in hospital soon after, from septicemia brought on by poor dental work to correct an earlier fight injury.

He was 21 years old. News of his death was devastating to his loyal fans in Australia for whom he remained a working-class hero.

Belt, Australian Flyweight Champion - 12 Sept 1970 Belt, Australian Flyweight Champion - 12 Sept 1970 (1970)Australian Sports Museum

Henry Nissen was an Australian Flyweight Champion who won a gold medal at the 1969 Maccabiah Games.

Born as Henry Nissenbaum in 1948 in a displaced persons camp in Germany, Nissen emigrated with his family to Australia in 1949.

Belt, Australian Flyweight Champion - 12 Sept 1970Australian Sports Museum

Nissen and his twin brother Leon were household Australian names in the 1970s due to their exploits in the ring. At one point the brothers concurrently held the Australian professional and amateur flyweight titles.

Poster, Empire Title Fight - John McCluskey v Henry Nissen, 1971 (1971)Australian Sports Museum

Nissen became Commonwealth champion in 1971 and held the title until losing it to fellow Australian “Big Jim” West in 1974. Despite reaching the number 3 ranked flyweight boxer in the world, Nissen was never able to challenge for the world title before he retired from fighting in 1974.

Gold medal won by Shirley Strickland for 220x220x110x110 yards relay, 1950 Empire Games (1950)Australian Sports Museum

Record holders

These champions have been recognised for being the first, the fastest, or the highest in their field.

Gold medal won by Shirley Strickland for 220x110x110 yards relay, 1950 Empire Games (1950)Australian Sports Museum

Shirley Strickland was one of Australia’s most successful athletes, having won more Olympic medals than any other Australian track athlete, including three Gold medals.

Strickland also won three Gold medals at the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland. She won the medal seen here as a member of the Australian women's 440 yards Medley Relay team.

Helm's World Trophy plaque, awarded to Shirley Strickland in 1955 (1955)Australian Sports Museum

Strickland was awarded the Helms Trophy in 1955, the same year she set a new world record over 100m of 11.3 seconds.

Athletics outfit, worn at 1998 Commonwealth Games by Emma George (1998)Australian Sports Museum

Emma George was a champion Australian pole vaulter who set numerous world records.
George held a total 17 world records in her career and broke the world record 12 consecutive times between 1995 and 1999. Her first world record height of 4.25 metres was set in Melbourne in November 1995.

IAAF World Indoor Record medal for women's pole vault, awarded to Emma George - 20 Feb 1997Australian Sports Museum

Along with her world records, George won the Gold medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and took Gold at the 1997 Universiade Games in Catania, Italy.

IAAF World Indoor Record medal for women's pole vault, awarded to Emma George - 20 Feb 1997Australian Sports Museum

Injured while training for the Seville Championships in 1999, she recovered to win the Australian Championships in early 2000. However, back problems plagued her in the approach to the Sydney Olympics where she did not reach the finals. She underwent two rounds of back surgery over the next few before announcing her retirement in 2003.

Racing wheelchair used by Kurt Fearnley, 2008 Beijing Paralympic GamesAustralian Sports Museum

Wheelchair racer Kurt Fearnley is a multiple Paralympic Gold medallist who has raced and won dozens of marathons, including the prestigious New York, London and Chicago marathons multiple times. Born without the lower portion of his spine and growing up in the small NSW town of Carcoar, Fearnley was introduced to wheelchair sports at school as a teenager. To compete professionally he needed a racing wheelchair.

Racing wheelchair used by Kurt Fearnley, 2008 Beijing Paralympic GamesAustralian Sports Museum

Local townspeople raised $10,000 to buy him one, allowing him to participate in elite competitions. He competed in his first Oz Day 10km race in 1996. The race launched his professional career. He won two Silver medals at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney.

Over the next few years he became one of the most successful wheelchair athletes in the world, winning two Gold medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and three more at the IPC Athletics World Championships in 2006, racing across a range of distances.

IAAF World Record plaque, Australian 4 x 110 yards relay team - London, 4 Aug 1952 (1952)Australian Sports Museum

Marjorie Jackson burst onto the national scene as a 17-year-old in 1949 when she defeated reigning Olympic champion Fanny Blankers-Koen. In 1950 she set the first of her ten world records before winning four gold medals at the Auckland Empire Games.

IAAF World Record plaque, Australian 4 x 100m relay team - 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games (1952)Australian Sports Museum

Jackson's greatest Olympic success came at the Helsinki Games in 1952. She took gold in the 100m and 200m and was a member of the 4x100m relay team with Shirley Strickland, Verna Johnston and Winsome Cripps, that set a world record in their heat. The plaque featured here was awarded in recognition of their world record time. The team was favoured to win gold, but their chance was lost when the baton was knocked from Jackson’s grasp at the final changeover. She recovered to finish fifth.

IAAF World Record plaque, Australian 4 x 110 yards relay team - London, 15 Jul 1952 (1952)Australian Sports Museum

Jackson won three more gold medals at the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games, adding to her career tally of two Olympic and seven Commonwealth Games gold medals. After her running career Jackson broke more barriers in athletics administration and civic life. She became the first woman to act as general-manager of an entire Australian multi-discipline team when she led the 332 athletes to contest the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada.
In 2001 Marjorie Jackson became the first woman to be appointed Governor of South Australia.

Autographed photograph of Andrew "Boy" Charlton, 1924 Paris Olympic Games (1924)Australian Sports Museum

Andrew “Boy” Charlton began achieving record-breaking wins against older and more experienced swimmers from the age of 14. He was an early adopter of the Trudgen stroke, a forerunner to the modern crawl used in freestyle swimming. He used this to great effect in 1923 when he defeated Australian swimming legend Frank Beaurepaire over 440yds at the Manly Baths.

In 1924, at age 16, he defeated Swedish swimmer Arne Borg, then the holder of four world records. Thousands of people packed Sydney’s Domain Baths to watch Charlton win the 440yd-race and equal Borg’s world record time in the process.
At the 1924 Paris Olympics Charlton won gold in the 1500m freestyle, setting a new world record in the process. He competed at three Olympics, winning five medals and broke five world records in his career.

Tennis racquet used by Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open, 2016Australian Sports Museum

Lleyton Hewitt is one of Australia's most successful tennis players. He became the youngest male player to be ranked number 1 in the world when he was 20 years, 8 months and 26 days old. He won two Grand Slam singles titles, the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002.

Tennis racquet used by Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open, 2016Australian Sports Museum

Nicknamed "Rusty", Hewitt won 30 career titles as a singles player, winning 616 times. He shone in Davis Cup tournaments, winning in 1999 and 2003, and holds several Australian records including most wins, most singles wins, most ties played and most years played.

Shoes worn by Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open, 2016Australian Sports Museum

Hewitt has been recognised with several accolades and awards. He was ATP Player of the Year in 2001, was awarded Young Australian of the Year in 2003, and made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2016 in recognition of his services to tennis and the community.

Autographed photograph of Andrew "Boy" Charlton, 1924 Paris Olympic Games (1924)Australian Sports Museum

Australia's small population has not stopped its champions from competing with the best in the world, and achieving the highest success in their fields.

Fittingly, these individuals have carved a legacy that goes beyond sport, touching on the nation's cultural identity and belief in the possible.

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