Perry personified new era
By Len Johnson
posted by rtross on October 20, 2012
Chris Perry, who died suddenly two weeks ago, personified the era of open athletics in Australia.
As well as being one of the driving forces behind the push to allow professional and amateur athletics to compete in any or all events in Australia, Perry was also one of the first beneficiaries of the revised order when he and training partner John Dinan were selected to run the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.
Elsewhere in the world, so-called ‘open’ athletics was about ‘amateur’ athletes being allowed to compete for prize-money or to be paid openly to compete at all. The growing US road circuit was most instrumental in forcing the break-through.
In Australia, however, it was not just about money. As in other countries, world-class ‘amateur’ runners were already earning under-the-table money while competing in Europe. (Indeed, athletes were already benefitting from grants under the Ron Clarke Foundation Fund which was set up from Clarke’s European earnings.)
‘Professional’ athletes in Australia competed for prize-money, but one or two races aside, the pickings were slim. It was more an organisational matter, with separate associations administering the two arms of the sport and more vested interests than you could poke a stick at. ‘Pro’ races were run off handicaps and involved betting, amateur events did not.
One of the few big-money ‘pro’ events was, of course, the Stawell Gift. Perry won it in 1982, taking home the princely sum of $12,000 plus a washing machine. Dinan had won two years earlier and Dallas O’Brien, now chief executive of Athletics Australia, won a year later.
Perry was coached by Neil King. Dinan was coached to his Gift triumph by legendary ‘pro’ mentor Monty Hirst, but joined the King stable after that. Together they all pushed for the right to run ‘amateur’ athletics.
The IAAF had changed its rules in the early 1980s, allowing athletes to be paid openly. Australia’s rules changed with the IAAF, but it took a while longer for the practical result everyone wanted. Professional and amateur athletes were finally allowed to compete across each organisation’s events in 1986. The advocacy of Perry, Dinan and King was certainly a key factor.
Perry, and especially Dinan, had a major impact on the 1985-86 Australian domestic season. Gerrard Keating had set a new national record of 10.22 seconds in running the 100 metres at the World Cup in Canberra in October, 1985. Perry beat him twice in the lead-up to the national championships in Adelaide.
Dinan was even more spectacular. At one meeting in Canberra he ran 20.19 for 200, the closest approach at the time to Peter Norman’s national record 20.06 set in taking the silver medal behind Tommie Smith at the Mexico City 1968 Olympics.
Some unkindly suggested Dinan must have started off the relay marks that night. This writer has never had any reason to doubt the run, though, as a week or so earlier, he had produced an even more impressive 20.30 on the same track.
At face value, the 20.30 did not seem overly impressive. Those looking at the results would have noted it as a wind-aided performance; the tail-wind was 2.2 metres per second. But those of us at the track knew different. Wind-aided it may have been, but that night was so cold the high jumpers were rugged up in full tracksuits supplemented by blankets specially requisitioned from the AIS accommodation quarters. I’ve always thought the 20.30 a better run than the 20.19.
Both Perry and Dinan had gone (just) past their peaks by the time of the national championships in Adelaide. Keating got a rocket start to exact his revenge on Perry in the 100, 10.51 to 10.69. Dinan qualified for the final of the 200, but troubled by an achilles/ankle injury, he did not run.
Nonetheless, Perry had become the first ‘pro’ to win a medal in an Australian championship.
Both men were selected for the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh later that year. Perry ran a personal best 10.34 in London in the lead-up to the Games, but was troubled by injury there and run out in the semis of the 100.
Dinan finished seventh in the 200 final, but only three men in the world ran faster that year than his 20.19 in Canberra. He made the following year’s Rome world championships team, but injury saw him eliminated in the heats of the 200.
Still, that little group of Neil King-coached athletes provided the first ‘pros’ to represent Australia (Perry and Dinan) and two chief executives of Athletics Australia (King, from 1989 to 1996, and O’Brien, from 2010).
Perry also went on to an administrative role, becoming president of the Victorian Athletic League from 1995 to 1997. The significant matter of Commonwealth Games selection aside, he may have fallen short of what he wanted to achieve as an ‘amateur’ athlete, but he made a contribution across all areas.
And for one summer, Chris Perry and John Dinan were the biggest thing happening in Australian athletics.