Melissa Breen is aiming to win her second Stawell Gift in the women’s 120-metre sprint. Photo: Rohan ThomsonIn this competition, women are vying for a sash and their motivation is speed and wind in their hair, not world peace.
The Stawell Gift has been a fixture for 134 years and run a women’s race since 1989 but it has taken 26 years for equal prize money. The prize pool for Australia’s richest footrace has increased with a life-changing zero – from $6000 to $60,000 – and the winner of the 120-metre sprint deposits $40,000 in the bank.
Despite the new sponsor of the women’s race, Australia Post, facing a $12 billion loss over the next decade if it didn’t restructure its mail service, it inked a three-year deal to cement its commitment to equality for women in its workforce and the community after its 20-year support of the event.
The general manager of human resources, Catherine Walsh, said: “As an organisation, Australia Post is passionate about diversity and equality for all.”
The $40,000 bounty could be coming the way of Australia’s fastest woman, Melissa Breen, the Canberra athlete who won the 100 metres in the national championships in 11.26 seconds.
Ms Breen, 24, is training for the world championships in Beijing in August but first, she will line up at her fifth Stawell Gift on Easter Monday in her second tilt at the sash after winning in 2012.
The athlete who laced up her runners aged five at the Tuggeranong Little Athletics Club never thought she’d see equal prize money. “We train the same,” Ms Breen said. “We run the same distance as men. It’s an amazing opportunity for women across the country. It’s awesome that Australia Post has got behind it and said women deserve the same.”
Given athletes are in the financial shadow of handsomely remunerated footballers, cricketers and tennis players, the increased prize money is a reward for their hours, days and years in training. Dollar signs are not a motivator for the sash, as Ms Breen said: “When I am running, I’m not thinking about money.”
But the increased prize money has drawn the strongest women’s field in years with 121 entrants. In the handicapped race, Ms Breen will run “off scratch” (from the starting line) and will compete against last year’s winner, Holly Dobbyn, three-time Olympian Lauren Wells, and aces Ella Nelson and Ashleigh Whittaker.
Over the Easter long weekend, 10,000 people will descend on Stawell and Central Park during their Grampians getaway, injecting more than $3 million into the economy.
Stawell Athletics Club spokesman Robert Irvine, who will watch his 29th race on April 6, said the committee had been working towards equal pay for “a long time” and was aided by state government funding of $150,000 annually for four years. “We’ve been trying to develop the women’s gift over a period of time,” Mr Irvine said.
The Stawell Gift is still a man’s domain because the three-day event draws 670 competitors in 20 races and only one-third are women. Some athletes compete in multiple events, taking race entries to 1696. In the past, the race has attracted the names Cathy Freeman, Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, Jana Pittman and Tamsyn Lewis.
Ms Breen’s coach, and witness to her dedication, Matt Beckenham, said the Stawell Gift was steeped in history and prestige as a nationally televised event on Channel Seven. “It’s a real step forward for the Stawell Gift and the committee to be bringing the women’s prize money up to parity. It’s only going to help encourage women to be more active in the sport.”
With her eye on the finishing line, Ms Breen said: “I don’t think a female has won twice at Stawell. That would be something pretty special and to win from scratch again would be very challenging.”
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