7 Great Australian Sporting Innovations

While we like to think of Australia as the ‘clever country’, it’s not unusual for sport to dominate our national psyche. Yet the two aren’t as mutually exclusive as some may think. Australia has a long and proud history of sporting innovation. Here are seven success stories that have changed sport forever, particularly how we watch along at home…

Image: Getty

This is the first installment in our new ‘Future of Sports Broadcasting’ series, presented in partnership with Samsung. Technical innovation builds on the past, so where better to kick off our investigation…

RaceCam (Motor Racing)

It’s 1979. You’re at home watching ATN-7’s (now Channel 7) coverage of the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 from Mount Panorama, Bathurst. A first-person perspective puts you inside Peter Williamson’s Toyota Celica, complete with the driver’s audio commentary. This isn’t retrieved footage from an onboard camera after an event — or a cameraman hunched on the back seat for a limited period. This is live; for the first time. Wow.

It’s all thanks to ATN-7 engineers Geoff Healy and John Porter, and reportedly inspired by Geoff’s son placing a camera on the dashboard during a trip to school. Microwave radio transmitters and helicopter relays made the idea a reality. It wasn’t until several years later that RaceCam made its way to the US. Yet today we have miniaturised remote control cameras that can tilt and zoom, be attached to bumpers and roofs and bring viewers closer to the action than ever before. Today, Formula One even mandates that cameras must be mounted to a car.

Stump-Cam (Cricket)

Hot on the heels of RaceCam, TCN Channel 9 introduced Stump-cam in the early 1980s. An expensive camera was sheathed in the middle stump, and a microphone used to pick up snicks (unless Lillee and Chappell were losing their cool). Stump-Cam revolutionised cricket broadcast in an era that famously also saw Kerry Packer take on Cricket Australia, experiment with white cricket balls, limited overs cricket and more.

As the 90s rolled around, the BBC also started using stump cameras; one of which was spectacularly shattered by fast bowler Devon Malcolm the 1990-91 Ashes tour. Over time, stump cameras became standard, and new Channel 9 innovations like the Snikometer (1999; in conjunction with Sky Sports) and speed gun, Hawkeye (2002) and HotSpot (2006) have been introduced for backyard umpires to enjoy.

Winged Keel (Yacht Racing)

In 1983 it had been more than 130 years since the New York Yacht Club relinquished its hold on the America’s Cup. Until, of course, Australia II – designed by Ben Lexcen and owned by the Alan Bond syndicate – made history by winning four races to three. Who can forget Bob Hawke’s reaction?

The success was largely attributed to Ben Lexcen’s innovative Wing Keel design and his use of reduced waterline length, lightweight carbon fibre boom and efficient vertical sails. The secretive keel delivered Australia II huge advantages in maneuverability and changed the direction of high performance sailboat design.

Graphics And Imaging (Swimming And, Well, Everything)

American TV networks are obsessive about sports graphics, but that doesn’t mean they have a monopoly on innovation. For its broadcast of the Sydney Olympic 2000 swimming — starting with the qualifying trials — Channel 9 partnered with Germany’s Orad Hi-Tec Systems to debut what NBC Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol would later call “one of the greatest advances in Olympic television ever.”

That breakthrough: a virtual world record line that let Australians at home and in pubs cheer swimmers past a thin yellow line. Continued developments introduced a submerged country flag in each lane for swimming and expanded use in cricket, athletics and American football. Touch down!

The Automatic Totalisator (Horse Racing)

In 1913, before computers, computational problems were solved with mechanical solutions. It was still a year before Thomas Watson would join the company later known as IBM. That’s why England-born New Zealander George Julius prototyped a vote-counting machine called the automatic totalisator while working as engineer in Sydney. The government said no, so Julius adapted the concept into a large-scale race odds calculator and formed Automatic Totalisators Ltd., operating from Sydney.

The totalisator debuted at Auckland racing club, followed by Gloucester Park Racetrack in Western Australia. George Julius would later become chairman at the CSIRO and was knighted in 1929. His machine inspired years of horseracing totalisator innovation, and was a precursor to dividend prediction. Shout your kiwi mate a beer next time you have a flutter.

Super Sopper (Cricket, Tennis)

Imagine a world where rain delays were extended indefinitely until grounds and courts dried. It’s a couch potato and sports fan’s nightmare. You might even remember those dark days. Welcome to 1974. Gordon Withnall’s sneaking in a round of golf in Sydney when his ball lands in a large puddle of water. As an inventor, the problem bothered him, but he soon built a prototype ‘Super Sopper’, received a world patent and was voted best machine of the night on ABC’s TV’s The Inventors.

Before long, the Melbourne Cricket Ground asked for a customised larger version, and hallowed English ground, Lords, also bought into the idea. Eventually, the ‘Sandpiper’ model was drying saturated tennis courts within fifteen minutes. How’s that for Aussie know-how.

A Super Sopper machine is used to absorb moisture from the field at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Image: Getty

MoTeC Engine Telemetry (Motor Sport)

In the early 1990s, Melbourne-based MoTeC pioneered the use of live telemetry and data logging in Australian motorsport. Soon after the home workshop developed one of the world’s first temperature-compensated Lambda meters for measuring air/fuel ratios.

Fast forward a few years and MoTeC’s purpose-built Research Centre opened in 2002 and its advanced engine management systems and data analysis tools have been adopted in Le Mans, NASCAR, Australian V8 Supercars, Indy Car, the Dakar Rally, F1 Powerboats, Formula 4000 and the military. This is some of the technology behind pit stop strategy, engine optimisation, telemetry data for television viewers, and more.

What About…

Honourable mentions to Speedo swimwear, SportsTec and the orbital engine.

Then there are the Aussies who invented the sport codes and techniques like Australian Rules football (circa 1858), touch football (~1960s), the ‘Australian crawl’ freestyle swim stroke (early 1900s), polocrosse (1938), callisthenics (1880s) and even the crouching stance at the start of an athletics sprint race! Aboriginal runner Bobby McDonald revolutionised the standing start way back in the 1890s.

Have we missed another key Australian sporting innovation?

Let us know in the comments!