History of National Sports Facilities in Canberra

By Greg Blood

An abridged version was published in the Canberra Times, 24 July 2021.

The current stalemate between the Commonwealth Government and the ACT Government regarding the future of Canberra Stadium and the AIS Arena reinforces the historical influence of the Commonwealth Government on the development of major sports facilities in Canberra.

The development of national sport facilities in Canberra can be traced back to 1926 where at a Canberra Social Service Association meeting it was stated that there were two sites under consideration for a national sports oval when discussing the requirements Manuka Circle (now Manuka Oval) and Northbourne Ovals. 

A Descriptive Guide to Canberra in 1927 noted that a “vast national sports ground will probably be laid out between Ainslie and Black Mountain—a ground with sufficient seating accommodation to stage big international events, such as the Olympic games and Test cricket.” Former Prime Minister Billy Hughes in a 1927 address in talking about the future of Canberra said it would be “a national centre in every sense of the word. It would be the scene in which the great national sports would fight out their final struggles for supremacy.” So, from the early days of Canberra as the national capital, there was an expectation that it would host significant national and international sporting events.

 In 1929, the Federal Capital Commission announced a plan to create a national sports area comprising of 18 hectares in Turner – bounded by then Boldrewood St, Sullivan’s Creek and Barry Cres. This area is now the northwest corner of the Australian National University (ANU) bounded by Barry Drive and Clunies Ross St. There is an insightful 1963 photo on the ANU Archives website that highlights the area which was to become the Turner Ovals precinct.

In February 1937, Gubby Allen’s MCC Cricket team whilst playing in Canberra took time out to plant six Atlas Mountain ash cedars on the site. The Canberra Times at the time reported that many Canberrans were not aware of the national sports oval plans for this site and that it was hoped that, at some future date, an England—Australia test cricket match would be played there.

The development of major sports facilities particularly Manuka and Northbourne Ovals in the 1930’s and 1940’s was limited primarily due to the Great Depression and World War II. In addition, the Commonwealth Government did not want to overly invest in Manuka and Northbourne Ovals as it had plans for a national sports area.

The Dept of the Interior in a July 1948 meeting with all major Canberra sports organisations outlined its plan for the national sports area in Turner. The plan included two large multipurpose ovals (188 m v 155 m), an area to accommodate five hockey fields which could be used as two extra cricket ovals and an athletics field which could also be used by rugby league and rugby union. It was envisaged that 500 athletes could simultaneously use the sporting facilities. The plan included a grandstand in five modules that could accommodate 5000 spectators.

In September 1948, a Departmental Committee comprising Herbert Waterman (Assistant Secretary Dept of Interior), Lindsay Prior (Superintendent Parks and Gardens) and Ernest Dowling (Surveyor Dept of Interior) was established to seek expert opinion and the views of the Turner Progress Association regarding the plan. In the meantime, the area set aside was developed with basic ovals and known as Turner Oval precinct. Early on, local residents complained about the lack of facilities at the Turner Oval precinct with “players changing in the open and using privately owned taps for a drink”.

At a Senate Select Committee in May 1955, John Mulrooney, past President of the Canberra National Football League, said it was rumoured that the national sports area had been shelved.  Mulrooney in his evidence bemoaned the inadequate Commonwealth funds for the development of facilities for spectators and players in Canberra.

Subsequently in 1959, the then Canberra University College’s need for additional land led to the Dept of the Interior transferring the Turner Ovals precinct to the College with the proviso that they remain available to the Canberra community for as long as ten years whilst other sports ovals were developed. This was the death knell for this site as a national sports area.

In 1960, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) under the leadership of John Overall was investigating an alternative site for development of a national sporting arena to cater for local, Australian and international sporting events. Manuka and Northbourne Ovals were viewed as not suitable due to their location and limited land area.

Canberra’s Federal Member Jim Fraser in 1965 noted that a site for a national athletic track in Canberra may be reserved in open lands west of Black Mountain – now the suburb of Bruce and the location of Canberra Stadium and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).

The development of the Bruce site eventually came about after Canberra was successful, in February 1974, in its bid to host the 1977 Pacific Conference Games, a major international athletics event. Importantly the bid had the support of the Commonwealth Government and Frank Stewart, the Minister for Tourism and Recreation.

In May 1974, the NCDC released an ambitious plan for the Bruce site which was chosen because it was “generally a central location which, in the future could be well served by both mass transit and the freeway system”. The plan included a major football and cricket stadium to seat 100,000, an athletics stadium to seat 20,000, an indoor sports hall, a swimming centre and a warm-up track adjacent to the athletics stadium.” This plan was based on the extremely optimistic projected Canberra population of 500,000 in thirty years’ time.

However, an NCDC technical paper in 1975 with the primary goal of constructing an athletics stadium for 1977 Pacific Conference Games recommended that “rather than build a 100,000-seat stadium which was limited in the range of games to be played there, it was decided to build two separate stadia, a small stadium containing a running track for the Pacific Games and a larger one accommodating the full range of sports”.

The National Athletics Stadium now known as Canberra Stadium was constructed in 18 months for $6.5 million. In 1977, it accommodated almost 20,000 spectators – a grandstand of 6000 seats with 3000 under cover, terraced seating for 4000 and seating on grass banks for 10,000.  After its completion, one its long-term tenants from 1978 was the Canberra team that participated in the nation soccer league.

The Commonwealth Budget in August 1979 allocated $1.8 million for indoor sports hall at the Bruce site. This was another piece of the Commonwealth Government’s plan to the develop international and national standard sporting facilities in Canberra.

An updated master plan in August 1979 indicated that an institute of sport was likely to be located at the Bruce site but it was not until January 1980 that Fraser Government announced the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) at the Bruce site.

The National Indoor Sports Centre now known as the AIS Arena was opened on 26 January 1981 and it included 2,700 permanent and 1,150 retractable seats. On the same day, the AIS was also officially opened by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. The Bruce site was then referred to as the National Sports Centre.

The AIS was initially able to use the athletics and indoor stadium for five of its eight sports – athletics, gymnastics, netball, basketball and weightlifting. Swimming, tennis and men’s football were forced to utilise training facilities throughout Canberra such the indoor swimming pool in Deakin.

It was obvious from day one that these facilities were not adequate to meet the training demands of over 150 athletes. The Fraser Government immediately started planning for additional training facilities at the Bruce site. By the end 1985, indoor swimming pool, gymnastics, basketball/netball and weightlifting halls, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, sports science and medicine buildings and athlete residences were completed. In many ways, the completion of these facilities made the AIS site close to the original plan in 1974 except for 100,000 seat stadium.

The successful bid to host the 1985 World Cup Athletics in Canberra led to further Commonwealth Government expenditure on the National Athletics Stadium. An $8 million redevelopment included a new uncovered grandstand for 4000 spectators on the eastern side of the Bruce site.

It should be noted that there was a tension between the AIS and the Dept of the Capital Territory that owned and managed National Athletics Stadium and National Indoor Sports Centre on behalf of the Commonwealth Government. The Dept of the Capital Territory was under pressure to raise revenue through the hire of the facilities but this often impacted on AIS training requirements. This tension was resolved in May 1985 when ownership was transferred to the AIS.

After hosting the well-attended World Cup Athletics in October 1985, the days of National Athletics Stadium as an international athletics stadium came to an end in 1988. Strong lobbying by the Federal Member for Canberra Ros Kelly led to Gary Punch and Graham Richardson, the Hawke Government Ministers responsible for the Bruce site, to agree to a three-way deal. The AIS would lease the Stadium to the ACT Administration rent free for 15 years and the Canberra Raiders were to be given priority access for a rental fee.

The cost to the ACT Government to transform the Stadium from an athletics stadium to an oval sports ground to meet the Canberra Raiders requirements was $3.7 million. This included the removal of the international standard athletics track and the upgrade of the nearby athletics warm-up track to meet the needs of AIS athletics. The National Athletics Stadium was renamed Bruce Stadium. 

The Canberra Raiders commenced playing their home games at Bruce Stadium from 1990. Interestingly, the new configuration led to AFL games being played including Sydney Swans pre-season games and an AFL fixture – Fitzroy playing West Coast in front of 11,282 spectators in May 1985.

The ACT Government in September 1996 made a bid to host the 2000 Sydney Olympics football matches. The successful bid led to the ACT Government financing the upgrade of Bruce Stadium to meet the IOC and FIFA requirements which required all-seated stadium. The final reported $82 million cost was a significant blow out from the original budget. This led on an Auditor-General’s report into the redevelopment financing processes and ultimately the resignation of Chief Minister Kate Carnell in October 2000 due to the threat of a no confidence motion over the Stadium redevelopment.

The redeveloped Bruce Stadium for the 2000 Sydney Olympics included a new covered grandstand on the eastern side, the change of the playing field from oval to rectangular, lowering the playing level and increased perimeter seating. It became 25,000 all seated stadium. This redevelopment greatly improved facilities for its major tenants – Canberra Raiders and Brumbies.

In 2021, thirty years after self-government, the Commonwealth Government, which played a significant role in the development of national sporting facilities in Canberra from the 1930s until 1985, still owns the major indoor and outdoor sports venues in the ACT, which have since been re-branded to remove national from their titles. The ACT Government still leases Canberra Stadium from the Commonwealth but is required to pay for its day-to-day management and fund upgrades. The Commonwealth also still owns the AIS Arena which has been closed since June 2020 as being “not fit for purpose”. Canberrans no longer have access to an indoor venue that can accommodate crowds of 4000.  

This brings us to today’s stalemate – Commonwealth Government through the Australian Sports Commission appears to be only willing to hand over Canberra Stadium and the AIS Arena to the ACT Government for a significant amount of money and the ACT Government appears to be unwilling or does not have the funds to purchase these facilities, which will most likely to require substantial upgrades or do not meet projected needs.

Does the Commonwealth Government still have a role in owning major sports spectator facilities in Canberra or should the ACT Government finally take full control over the provision of these facilities?

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