The Yarra, Birrarung River: Melbourne’s Secret Sporting Legend

World cities have been built around rivers. From London to New York, Paris and Melbourne, the Thames, the Hudson, the Seine and the Yarra, Birrarung. These and other urban rivers, touted as polluted and dirty, are being revived and restored and brought back to life for their people. 

At the Paris 2024 Olympic Games the Seine will be the centerpiece for the games opening ceremony and open water swimming events. The legacy of public swimming in the water way will be available long after the games have finished. 

In Melbourne, the Yarra, Birrarung has been a meeting place for millenia. The river is a constant backdrop for the city’s culture, for the arts and sport. Everyday it provides a place for thousands of people to row, walk, run, cycle, swim, and kayak. 

The links between nature, people, stadiums, sport, physical activity and the Yarra, Birrarung in Melbourne are not often talked about, but they are clear and they deserve celebration. These interactions have come to shape how we relate to the river, how we feel about it, how we know it and love it, even without us noticing.

The Melbourne arts and sporting precinct is vast. In many cities these precincts and the stadiums, can feel industrial and architectural. This is not the case in Melbourne. The city’s major sporting precinct is integrated not only into the city, but also with the river. This relationship is not by accident. 

Melbourne’s sporting precinct’s unique parkland character and connection to the river is thanks to the early planning of the city when large areas were set aside as parkland for leisure, recreation and sport. By 1853 a 10 acre site was earmarked for the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the 40 hectare heart of spectator sport in Melbourne gained international attention as it was redeveloped for the 1956 Olympic Games. 

Further redevelopments and additional stadia and facilities have been built since the late 1980s, modernising the precinct, and securing and enabling a wider range of sports, licensed teams and major events, including the 2006 Commonwealth Games and 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup matches. 

Through it all, the river has been there.

More than just a landmark, the Yarra, Birrarung itself becomes part of the events. The lights on the bridges are lit in the colours of the playing teams. For the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the river sparkled with the multi-colours of the event logo reflecting a broader connection between the Rectangular Stadium and the fan live site at Federation Square. 

The Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony saw AFL captains on floating pontoons passing on the Queen’s Baton until it reached Ron Barassi who ‘walked on water’ across a submerged river pontoon to the Swan Street bridge. He was met by Herb Elliot who carried the Baton into the MCG for the final legs by Cathy Freeman, Ron Clarke, Majorie Jackson-Nelson and John Landy before being presented to the Queen.  

And when it comes to tennis, from Jim Courier’s famous plunge in 1993 to Angelique Kerber taking a dip after becoming women’s singles champion in 2016, The Australian Open is a major annual international sporting event that has the Yarra, Birrarung flowing through its history. This connection will continue for the foreseeable future, as it’s been agreed that The Australian Open will call Melbourne Park home until at least 2044.

The 2022 AFL Grand Final Parade started its journey in boats on the Yarra, Birrarung. In a last minute twist, one week out from the 2023 AFL Grand Final Parade on 29 September,  preference has been given to following the banks in Toyota vehicles vs boating. The river will act as a wayfinder for fans, bringing thousands to the city, along the banks, over the bridges, celebrating and connecting with the river through their passion for footy. 

Every year athletes, staff and millions of spectators experience the Yarra, Birrarung as they travel and walk to and from games and matches. A walk along the river from Flinders Street to the MCG or Federation Square to Melbourne’s Rectangular stadium is a routine part of many fans’ relationships to their team and the stadiums they have come to love.  It is easy to overlook, but for many people this might be the main way they relate to the river and spend time with it.

Spending time with the river happens in a seemingly banal way.  Water relationships are more than swimming. Walking is more than our feet on the ground. Kayaking is more than turning the paddle over. Rowing is more than pulling an oar. Cycling is more than the pathways we roll over. Being on, in and around the river can represent powerful relationships. We can experience moments of joy where celebrations can bind us together. We can retreat to the river, the cool and the green, for calm, away from the bustle. 

Time spent by the water is good for us—and it’s good for the river too.  We may expect that the river will always be there, accessible, present, full and flowing.

But to ensure the river is taken care of, simply observing its ebbs and flows is not enough. We need to act as well.

The stadiums themselves are taking many actions to ensure their operations minimize their impact on the river. 

The MCG in partnership with the City of Melbourne installed Victoria’s largest underground water recycling facility that reduces water usage and keeps the parks green.  The Melbourne Olympic Park Trust is committed to a sustainability plan. The rectangular sports stadium featured in the FIFA Women’s World Cup has been Green Building Certified as part of the legacy of the tournament. The Australian Open, Tennis Australia, Tennis Victoria, and Richmond Football Club are also taking responsibility for their impacts by using their platform to protect our natural world. 

 While stadiums are taking steps to ensure they take care of the river,  it’s just as important for spectators to think about how we impact the water too – it’s all too easy for our food wrappers, cigarette butts and plastic water bottles to end up in the water as we walk to and from events. Next time you’re walking to a match or a game down in the sporting precinct, add some extra time to walk to the stadium, and connect to the river and check on its health.

Sports organisations and their partners, the broadcasters and athletes can raise awareness of the natural environments we use as our places of play and the backdrop to our events, inspiring us all to act to protect our iconic Yarra, Birrarung now— and for the  future.

On World Rivers Day (24 September), the month-long Birrarung (Yarra) Riverfest will celebrate and showcase our iconic urban waterway. It offers over 20 activities and events including a river cruise, kayak clean-ups, Platypus spotting and telling your story of connection to the River with Love Stories of the Birrarung. The event is convened by river advocacy group the  Yarra Riverkeeper Association.

Athletes have been strong advocates for waterways around the world. Legendary open water swimmers Tammy Van Wissse (who swam the length of the Murray from the Alps to the Ocean in 1981) and Lewis Pugh (who swam the length of the iconic Hudson River in 2023) both made these incredible journeys to raise awareness of the value of rivers and the challenges they face to remain healthy for people and for nature. Although worlds apart, each of these swimmers were joined and celebrated by the rivers communities, from politicians, environmentalists, farmers, school children, families and fellow water lovers including anglers, swimmers, water polo players and triathletes. The river is more than just water, it is a way of life and a life-force to these people.

The Yarra, Birrarung should be celebrated as a waterway, a place of beauty, as a place of recreation and celebration for thousands of Melburnians and visitors to the city each year, it deserves more than a background role in our city’s sporting pursuits.

It needs a place at the start-line for a chance to win the number one spot on the podium.

 It’s Melbourne’s one true sporting legend.

There are a range of ways to take care of the river that takes care of us and binds us together.

Article by co-authors:

Annabel Sides: Regenerative Sport Practitioner and Advocate. Founder of Green Planet Sport

Rebecca Olive: Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University. Rebecca’s research explores the role of sport in human-environmental health and wellbeing with a focus on ocean sport and leisure:

Carolyn Tate: Author, Yarra Yabbies river swimmer, creator of Love Stories of the Birrarung and the Yarra Riverkeeper Association Membership Engagement Lead.

Photo Courtesy Sarah Sterrett.

© 2023. This work is licensed under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license.

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