In 1983, a new Sydney University tradition was born: The Great Quad Race. Organised by the Sydney University Athletics Club (SUAC), it consisted of a 180 metre (or 210 depending on who you ask) dash around the Quadrangle and became a hotly contested mainstay of USyd Orientation Week in the 1980s. According to a 1983 edition of The University of Sydney News, the sprint is said to be inspired by the racing scene around Cambridge in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.
The dash was held on the first day of Orientation week at noon, just an hour after the official welcome in the Great Hall. According to archival advertisements for the race, “all first years are invited to participate” in the “Freshers’ Section”; there were additional open and Women’s events. In its inaugural year, Ross Hawthorne won overall with an astonishing time of 25.4 seconds — though apparently he was a three time State 400-metre champion. Out of the 52 entrants, only one other beat the 26 second record established in the earlier heats.
However, not all participants took it that seriously. In the subsequent edition of USyd News, a headline that reads “Champagne athletes cross the line” is accompanied by a photo of three dapper students running through the centre of the quad. Champagne glasses in one hand and the neck of the bottle in the other, they are dressed in “1920s style” attire as they make the slowest time recorded in the race. Amusingly, these campus legends “retired to a table and chairs beneath a tree for refreshments.”
The race was reportedly sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank, and the top 20 students won t-shirts which read ‘Get With the Strength’ on the front. It remains unclear what the winners of each race actually received other than, of course, fame, glory, and bragging rights.
Notably, the shenanigans did not end with the champagne champs. In 1986’s race, the USU Debating Society was simultaneously in the Quadrangle attempting to obtain the Guiness World Record Debate title across 6 consecutive days of debating. Surpassing the previous record of 153 hours and 20 minutes, the 500 students, staff, and journalists who participated achieved a new world record of 155 hours and 30 minutes. The debate topic was “You can fool all of the people all of the time”, and for two multi-talented students, they continued the debate with each other as they successfully ran in the Quad Race.
Seemingly, the last archival account of the race is in 1990. Now, I’m no patron of the race track, nor did I once participate in my High School athletics carnival. However, I would enjoy a community sprint around the Quad in the name of (a) Welcome Week activities and (b) reviving campus culture.
Think you can beat the undefeated 26 second record? Try it out for yourself and send us a letter. Or even better — bring back the official Great Quad Race at Welcome Week 2023.