It’s a title as hotly contested as any in the sporting world: which city can rightfully boast of being the sporting capital of Australia? Melbourne, as host to a number of top-drawer events the year round, regularly lays claim to the crown – and what better time to prove it than on one particularly action-packed weekend last month?
With the 2017 AFL season opener at the MCG and four other games in Melbourne following in quick succession, it was always going to be a busy few days in the state capital’s calendar. Then throw in the season-opening Formula One Grand Prix and, all of a sudden, the eyes of the world are focused on this city and its fanatical sports disciples.
When the sun is out – as it is this weekend – Melbourne truly shines. And with the laneways that serve as the arteries of the city’s heart pulsing with crowds by Saturday brunch-time, it’s clear there is a major international event on: there are not just Melburnians here today, or even Australians; the F1 has attracted a melting pot of nationalities.
At St Ali Coffee Roasters in South Melbourne, the air is thick with talk of cars – chiefly the upcoming qualifying race, and Sunday’s main event at Albert Park. Anticipation is palpable, especially given the hopes resting on the young shoulders of Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo, the Red Bull driver who pundits have as a real chance of success at his home grand prix.
But before that is a trip to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the giant concrete multi-purpose behemoth situated a brisk 20-minute walk southeast from the CBD. If Melbourne is indeed the capital of sport, this must surely be its royal palace, its seat of power.
Any self-respecting Australian sports fan knows all about the MCG: that it claims to be the birthplace of Australian rules football and one-day and Test cricket; that it holds 100,000 people; that it hosted the 1956 Olympic and 2006 Commonwealth Games; and that the world’s biggest football teams have appeared there. They have even played State of Origin, that most un-Victorian of competitions, at the MCG.
Brian Tankey is approaching his 50th year of membership to the Melbourne Cricket Club, the game’s governing body in Australia and managers of the MCG. Tankey, sporting a well-worn pinstripe MCC blazer, is a volunteer guide and, befitting of someone of his age and wisdom, is able to delve below the surface of the facts and figures, both literally and figuratively: after a quick look at the pitch from the sidelines and a sit on the interchange bench, we are taken down into the bowels of the stadium.
The tour explores what lies behind – or even beneath – the scenes. Down here, there are indoor cricket nets (the best such facility in the country, according to Tankey), gymnasiums, canteens and labyrinthine changerooms, already prepped for the evening’s big game between Essendon and Hawthorn.
Tankey points out several deep gashes cut into a wall outside the changerooms. That’s where the Sydney team bus driver had a scrape on his way into the stadium before last year’s AFL grand final defeat to the Western Bulldogs, he says, trapping the Swans players on the bus for an hour. Or so the story goes.
Back upstairs, up one of the many flights within the stadium, we are permitted to walk through the exclusive Long Room and members’ dining room, a buffet service restaurant reserved for MCC members and their guests who satisfy the strict and rather complex dress code regulations. Shirts, ties and conservative dresses are in, collarless shirts, zippered jackets and non-tailored casual pants are out.
The room lives up to its old-fashioned reputation; appearance and etiquette are all important here and the tone is one of reverence. A sense of history exudes from the walls, which are adorned with portraits of past MCC presidents and secretaries, including the likes of Frank Grey Smith (who has a bar in the MCC reserve named after him), Sir Bernard Callinan, Hugh Trumble and VS Ransfor.
Next up is the National Sport Museum, also housed at the MCG. This underground tribute to Australian sport is not restricted to cricket and AFL and every conceivable sport is acknowledged in some form – cycling, football, rugbys league and union, basketball, netball, athletics, tennis and everything in between. The highlight, however, is the room containing a hologram of Shane Warne, who delivers a talk about his career, detailing among other things the unfortunate consequences of a hand injury he once suffered. (For the record, he was unable to wipe his own bottom while recovering.)
The MCG is part of the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Precinct and other sporting venues, including Rod Laver and Margaret Court Arenas (tennis), Hisense Arena (tennis, basketball, netball, cycling), AAMI Park (football and rugby) and Olympic Park Oval (AFL), are within spitting distance. Not far from here, hovering helicopters give away the location of Albert Park, the venue for the grand prix. While that falls outside the designated precinct, it gives a further indication of how compact Melbourne’s sporting landscape is.
These venues lie in the shadows of the skyscrapers that mark out the city’s CBD and the proximity of it all may well be part of Melbourne’s broad appeal to sports fans. Access to and from the stadia is quite literally a walk in the park. And what that means is people are more likely to incorporate a sporting event into a night out on the town.
That theory is put to the test when, following an aperitif at Garden State Hotel, we pay a visit to one of the hottest restaurants in town, Chin Chin, where a 10-dish tasting menu is devoured and yet we still manage to make it to our seats at the MCG in time for the opening bounce of the evening’s big AFL game.
We’re part of a 78,000-strong, majority Essendon, crowd that has come to bear witness to the return of several Bombers players who, having served bans handed out after the 2011 supplements scandal, are finally free to play again. It’s an emotional night, not just for the players and their team-mates, but for the crowd too. Having arrived to a free T-shirt draped over the back of their seats emblazoned with the slogan, “I’m part of the comeback story”, Essendon fans are able to mark the occasion in celebratory mood as they watch their reinvigorated team march to a pulsating victory over Hawthorn.
The club song blasts out of the industrial grade PA system over and over at full-time and, as hoards of joyous fans sing along, the emotion is too much to bear for some standing near us – one woman in particular looks like she has been put through the ringer over the past few hours and is in need of a stiff drink. These Melburnians live and breathe their footy club.
Two days earlier, a similarly sized crowd had flocked to the MCG for the season-opener between Richmond and Carlton and, come the final reckoning at the end of the round, attendance records are smashed, with 280,000 watching AFL matches in Melbourne alone.
Those numbers swell further with Super Rugby team Melbourne Rebels playing at AAMI Park on Friday night, and Super Netball’s Vixens playing at Hisense Arena on Saturday. And, of course, the crowds were also out in force for the F1, with an estimated 296,000 visiting Albert Park over the course of the four-day event.
Bearing that in mind, a total of well over 500,000 sports fans watched live sport in Melbourne over a single long weekend. Even factoring in the F1 out-of-towners, for a city with a population of 4.6m, that is quite some proportion.
Of the 97,000 who turn out for Sunday’s race, the finale to the weekend, many are proudly showing their colours – there is plenty of Ferrari and Mercedes merchandise on display but a fair proportion of them are those of Ricciardo’s Red Bull team.
The young Australian is somewhat of a rarity in this sport – both a likeable character and a hugely talented driver – and his popularity understandable. Each time he whizzes past our vantage point in a blur of blue, red and yellow, a cheer goes up from onlookers. Sadly he’s not pushing Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel for the lead and the encouragement has a rather ironic tone to it; Ricciardo’s weekend has not gone to plan. After crashing out in qualifying round a day earlier, he received a grid penalty, started the race from the pit lane and then his engine failed on lap 29, forcing him out of the race.
So while it was no dream home grand prix for Ricciardo, this does not appear to have dampened the spirits of the massed ranks of F1 enthusiasts. As the roar of engine noise dies down and the baselines of the hospitality tents’ sound systems again rise to the fore, spectators flood onto the track to retrace the recent movements of their heroes in the hope of finding a bizarre memento of the weekend in the form of an offcut from a degraded tyre.
The sun begins to set over the Albert Park lake and, coupled with the rather appropriate Michelin Man clouds that punctuate the pinkening sky, it’s a sight to behold. It affords a rare moment of reflection: could Melbourne indeed be the centre of the sporting universe? Brian Tankey’s smiling answer from the previous day immediately comes to mind and it is he who gets to have the last word in the argument – at least for this weekend: “Absolutely. It would have to be, wouldn’t it?”
- Guardian Australia was a guest of Visit Victoria