IMAGE|| Mike Cleary winning the CAS Schools 100 yards (right) from David Prince. Mike Cleary playing rugby league for NSW.
Over an extraordinary 16 months, Mike Cleary wore the green and gold of Australia, in Rugby Union, Rugby League and at the Commonwealth Games. An unprecedented achievement which earmarked Cleary as one of the greatest all-rounder athletes in Australian sporting history.
By David Tarbotton
Additionally, his bronze medal in athletics at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games was the most recent won by an Australian male in the 100m/100y at the Olympics, IAAF World Championships or Commonwealth Games (able-bodied).
From Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, Cleary attended the rugby and athletics mad Waverley College. He enjoyed a successful athletics career in combined Athletics School carnivals. In 1958, an 18-year-old Cleary engineered his school rugby team to an undefeated season, helping himself to 23 tries. At the end of the season he was back on the athletics track and although only 18-years-old was starting to clock some nationally significant sprint times including 9.7 for 100 yards, ranking him the fifth fastest in Australia for the year.
With the Rome Olympics on the horizon, Cleary had realistically set his sights on making that team. Out of school in late 1958, he had started selling Arrow brand shirts in his father’s company. He was training for athletics, but something was wrong, he was not well – eventually he was diagnosed as having glandular fever. His Olympic hopes were dashed. In 1960 he debuted for Randwick Rugby first division and within months was on representative teams, for NSW against Queensland where he debuted with three tries. A year later, in 1961 he was selected for Australia in three rugby tests against Fiji. In August he toured South Africa and played in Australia’s two tests against the Springboks. His sixth and final test for the Wallabies was against France in late August 1961.
Rugby League scouts had Cleary in their sights and in 1962 he agreed to play with South Sydney, But he still dreamed of Australian representation on the athletics track. In that era, he needed to maintain his amateur status, this meant he could earn no money for playing with South Sydney. There was even a limit on the value of prizes he could accept – 18 pounds. This resulted in him unable to receive the weekly man-of-the-match award, a Seiko watch valued at 25 pounds.
Ahead of his rugby league debut he was back on the athletics track over the summer of 1961/62. At the national championships at ES Marks Field (17 and 19 March 1962) he won bronze medals in the 100 yards and 220 yards. In the hundred all three were given the same time of 9.6. On March 29, following the Australian Championships, he was announced in the squad for the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games to be held in Perth in late November. But his immediate focus was now rugby league as astonishingly just 19 days after the national championships, he made his South Sydney Rugby League debut on April 7 at Redfern Oval against Parramatta. He instantly impressed scoring the team’s only two tries in their 14-7 win. His Rugby League career was certainly up and away. After just six games with the Rabbitohs he was selected in the second match for NSW in the annual four-match interstate series against Queensland (State of Origin). And would you believe it, he scored two tries on debut. Three weeks later he was selected for Australia in a test against Great Britain at the SCG on 9 June 1962. Australia had arguable the two fastest wingers ever to play the game in that match with Ken Irvine on the other wing. But unfortunately, his involvement in the match was shortened when he, Irvine and the two English wingers were all sent off for fighting. Cleary played his final match for the season with South Sydney on August 18. He was the clubs top try scorer for the season with 12.
The focus now switched back to the track and the British Empire and Commonwealth Games were just three months away. He was in the squad, but still needed to be selected at the trials in Melbourne on October 20/21. He had two months to prepare and he was rounding into top form. Four weeks after he stepped off the football field he ran an excellent series of times, 9.5 100 wind assisted, and a PB 21.3 220 yards in September. In October he ran 9.6 and a wind assisted 9.4 for the 100 yards. He admitted recently, “It did take a while to transition back into athletics. I felt ‘heavy’ after football.”
The trials in Melbourne in October were held in wet conditions, with Cleary running as well as the previous summer, placing third in the 100 yards and second in the 220 yards, easily securing his selection for Australia in his third sport in just 16 months. He was off to Perth for the Games and at a warmup meet in Geraldton he clocked a wind assisted 9.3 seconds, equal to the fastest ever time run by an Australian. He was ready.
At the Games, the 100 yards heats were on day one of the athletics competition, but it was a demanding program with the quarter-final, semi-final and final all on day two. The temperatures were stifling, around 38 degrees Celsius. From the heats, Cleary looked good winning his first two races, then qualifying for the final after placing second in his semi-final. In the final he ran well, but was initially placed fourth with team mate Gary Holdsworth taking the bronze medal. But photo evident raised doubt about that result and eventually after a re-read of the photo two days later, Mike Cleary was installed as the bronze medallist.
After the Games Cleary continued competing during the summer of 1962/63. He placed second in the 100 yards and third in the 220 yards at the national championships in Adelaide. But on March 25 he had run his last ‘amateur’ race and two weeks later he pulled on his South Sydney jersey as the team lined up against the Canterbury Bulldogs in the season opener. He went on to play 157 grade games for Souths (1962-1970 & Easts 1971), win three premierships with Souths, play eights tests for Australia and 11 games for NSW. He briefly ran again in 1964 against Ken Irvine, who had run 9.3 seconds for 100 yards and was the world profession record holder. Cleary won the race held at Wentworth Park in Sydney. Cleary later ran in some more professional races.
In 1974, just three years after he had retired from football, he entered the NSW parliament, where he served for 17 years, including seven years as NSW Sports Minister.