One of the earliest colonial sporting pursuits, athletics owes its impromptu origins to imported British cultural traditions. The military and free settlers, notably hotel-keepers, promoted a range of athletic contests, including footraces, jumping, tests of strength, walking races, boxing, skittles and putting-the-stone. A lack of entertainment opportunities and the propensity for betting and gambling also boosted the popularity of these largely working-class activities, allowing some participants to receive appearance money and to compete as professionals as part of a circuit. 'Gifts' - handicapped races run for a purse - also originated from the wealth generated in goldmining towns. The Stawell Gift was established as an annual Easter event from 1878 and became one of the richest professional sprints in the world - the 'Melbourne Cup' of athletics.
Pedestrianism was at its peak in the second half of the 19th century and H.C.A. Harrison (sprint champion of the colony from 1859 to 1866) was one of a group of prominent citizens including W.J. Hammersley and R.J. Wardhill who helped to organise athletic activities along amateur lines under the auspices of the Melbourne Cricket Club. The network of independent schools in Melbourne also included athletic sports as part of their curriculum and not only provided the necessary infrastructure for many competitions but gave strong support to the amateur ideals inherent in these activities. An umbrella organisation, the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association, was formed in 1891 and the first Australasian track and field championships were held in Melbourne in November 1893, a challenge to the professional foothold on athletics and a precursor to later qualifying trials for the Olympic Games.
As a result of broad social changes arising from World War I, interclub athletic meetings were open to females in Victoria from 1929, and in the following year Melbourne hosted the first national championships for women. In this context, the hosting of the Olympic Games in 1956 represented the acme of achievement for amateur track and field competition in Victoria and gave exposure and recognition to a number of local athletes, some of whom had trained at Portsea under the eccentric athletics coach Percy Cerutty. The 1950s and 1960s were halcyon days for athletics in Australia, as clubs such as Glen Huntly, Malvern, Mentone, Box Hill and Heidelberg developed a network of tracks and allied facilities across the suburbs, with Olympic Park serving as the hub of administration and the site for State championships. However, in the face of increased international competition, Australian athletic success declined markedly in the 1970s, resulting in the creation of a federally funded national centre for elite sport and the formation of various satellite bodies, including the Victorian Institute of Sport in 1990.
Recent changes to the Olympic charter have blurred the distinction between professional and amateur competitors and this development is reflected in the omission of the word 'amateur' from the title of the national organising body in April 1982 and the adoption of the name Athletics Australia in 1990. At the junior level, the popular Little Athletics program now provides young children with the opportunity to participate in track and field events as part of a broad-based community activity.