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News19 Jan 2023

Maybe Morocco? Australia's First World Cross Country Championships


Australian invite for 1975 World Cross Country Championships (© Len Johnson)

Chris Wardlaw lay on his couch filling in his diary on Sunday, 22 February 1975 doubts wracking his mind.

That morning he had been belted around over a 13-mile course at Ferny Creek in the Dandenong Ranges by Andy Hill, a fast-developing runner who would win the Australian 5000 metres a few weeks later. The previous morning Hill and John Axsentieff had bested him around a hilly 8-miler on which Wardlaw considered himself king, which facts over quite a few years tend to bear out.

Hill had come on too late to contend for the Australian team due to travel in the next few days to Morocco for the World Cross Country Championships. Wardlaw and Axsentieff had been selected. Now, to cap off a dismal weekend, it seemed a delay in Federal government funding might torpedo the trip.

“Morocco. Maybe Wednesday. Maybe never,” Wardlaw added as a morose appendment to his weekend’s training.

Not too far away in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs Lavinia Petrie was pondering whether there was any practical way of refunding money raised through pub trivia quizzes and barbeques for the two Victorian women members of the team. That’s if she had time to worry about anything at all. Lavinia and husband Bob Petrie were busy raising three young children.

All monies raised were held in trust by the Victorian women’s amateur athletic association, Petrie explains.

“Under the rules we had to give (the money) to the VWAAA, then apply to get it back for the competition for which you were collecting the funds.”

What if you now could not get to said competition. Funds accepted into general revenue can be notoriously hard to claw back, especially when the purpose for the funds no longer can be realised.

The Federal funding – up to 50 percent of the airfares – promised in November, 1974, made viable a trip which was otherwise to be funded largely by the state associations and the individual athletes. The team was to fly to Rome for races and training in Italy, then to Casablanca and – by bus – Rabat.

Funds promised are very different from funds delivered, however. Two potential flights left without the team. And still no money. “Very pessimistic,” wrote Wardlaw on the Monday.

At 8pm Tuesday, everything changed. The Department of Tourism and Recreation (which also administered sport) delivered. The money was in the bank.

“Going tomorrow 3pm,” Wardlaw recorded for posterity. From going (at selection), through maybe and possibly going, to probably not going, now, “Like Webster’s Dictionary, Australia was Morocco-bound,”.

Few team members then were experienced international travellers (fewer still once New Zealand was excluded). The language barrier was a recurring problem, though men’s team captain Rob McDonald spoke Italian and both he and Lavinia Petrie had a little French which would come in handy in Morocco. The pre-booked hotel proved inadequate, necessitating a change after the first sleepless night.

The men’s and women’s teams were to race in the respective Italian Championships. The women’s race, in Verona, went (relatively) smoothly; the men’s race in Rome was shambolic. There was one false start before the Australians had even reached the marshalling point some 250 metres away from the designated start.

A second false start was likewise recalled but at the third stampede the starter went with the numbers and simply fired the gun. The Aussies started from where they were, some up with the field, others not so much, but none as badly impacted as Bob Talay who had chosen a very inconvenient moment for a last-minute convenience stop.

On to Morocco. As the teams gathered, the Australians were amazed at the quality of the opposition they would face – and equally amazed at how they ran. Eagerly seizing the chance to run back to the hotels from a course inspection with Frank Shorter, the reigning Olympic marathon champion, Bill Scott and Chris Wardlaw found it difficult to accommodate the American’s warm-down pace.

Exalted company notwithstanding, Wardlaw could not run that slow. “Dropped off Shorter,” he told  the diary. Scott persevered, figuring an Olympic champion must be doing most things right and this might be one such thing. Maybe it was. Race day saw Scott lead Shorter with 600 metres to run before finishing two places behind him in 22nd place as Australia’s leading finisher. Wardlaw was second Australian home in forty-seventh a step ahead of McDonald.

The Hippodrome Suissi  (Suissi Racecourse) presented a sandy surface on the course proper (with rough grass further out from the inside running) and a detour into the centre where runners had to negotiate a ramp followed by a ditch. There was a hurdle in the main straight.

It was flat and fast, very fast from the gun even without an ‘Italian’ start. Both Lavinia Petrie and Rob McDonald commented on the pace in their reports.

“The race was fast, despite the sandy surface,” wrote McDonald. “5:26 for the first 2km and (the leaders) hadn’t broken away.” One more thing to which future Australian competitors would need to adapt.

It was much the same in the women’s race. The four Australians struggled to stay in touch but came through solidly enough, finishing mid-field. Without a star performer, Lynne Williams (44) led the team home followed by Elizabeth Richards (later Hassall; 45), Maureen Moyle (47) and Petrie (53).

For the men, following Scott, Wardlaw and McDonald (47) were Jim Langford (60), Dave Chettle (105), Dennis Nee (116) – the scoring team members, and Talay (149). John Axsentieff (ill) started but did not finish. The team was eleventh.

The first four in the men’s race demonstrated the universality of cross-country at the time. Scotland’s Ian Stewart had won the 3000 metres at the European indoors just a week earlier, Mariano Haro of Spain had been second four times in a row in the international race, Bill Rodgers of the USA was a few weeks away from winning the Boston marathon in a sub-2:10 performance and John Walker would go on to break 3:50 for the mile and win the Olympic 1500 in the next two years.

Julie Brown of the USA, a talented runner who made the 1980 Olympic team (which did not go to Moscow because of the US boycott) at 800 and 1500 and the 1984 team in the marathon, won the women’s race. Following so soon after Doris Brown (17th in Rabat) had won the International Cross Country women’s race five years in a row from 1966 to 1970, the French sports daily L’Equipe reported this under the memorable headline: “D’Une Brown a L’Autre” (from one Brown to another).

In keeping with the tenor of the trip in general, Australia absorbed some lessons quickly, others, not so much. With an injection of youth – Robert de Castella, Gerard Barrett, Bryan Lewry – Australia improved to sixth in 1977 and 1979, fifth in 1981 and fourth in Gateshead in 1983, two points outside a medal.

Unforgivably, though, it would be four years before a full women’s team went again. No females in 1977, just two in 1979 before Anne Lord, Desiree Letherby, Megan Sloane, Rosemary Longstaff, Gayelene Clews and Rhonda Mallinder represented in Madrid in 1981.

Both Chris Wardlaw and Lavinia Petrie remain immersed in the athletics world. Wardlaw has been a competitor at two Olympics and four World Cross Country Championships, coach and mentor, head team coach for the 1998 Commonwealth Games, 1999 World Championships and Sydney 2000 Olympics and a board member of Athletics Australia. He was made a life governor at the 2022 AGM and is on the board of the Bathurst23 LOC.

Lavinia Petrie was a pioneering women’s distance runner, prominent in track and cross-country events throughout her career. She was also one of the first Australian women to tackle the marathon in the mid-1970s. She continues to contribute at club level, as an official and in Masters competition and was recognised as the IAAF (now World Athletics) Masters’ Female Athlete of the Year in 2014.


Both will be running the Masters events at Bathurst23.

By Len Johnson for WXC Bathurst 2023