He’s the man everyone credits with ‘saving’ rugby league in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic; and the man who recently announced that the NRL Grand Final would return to Sydney this year in a move praised by many sport fans.
But as I sit down for a Zoom interview with the Chairman of the Australian Rugby League (ARL) Commission and CEO of Racing NSW, Peter V’landys, I can instantly tell there’s more to the man than just sport.
Beneath the tough boss veneer is a man who worked hard to assimilate into Australian society and make his Greek migrant parents proud.
Becoming ‘one of them’ through sport:
Born on the Greek island of Kythera, V’landys migrated to Australia in 1965 with his two brothers and mum, to join his dad in Wollongong, south of Sydney. At the time, V’landys was only three years old and life was difficult.
“We grew up in a typical Greek house. We spoke Greek. My dad would work from 6am until 3pm but then, in order to earn extra money, he would do what they call a ‘doubler’ and work until midnight,” the rugby league boss says.
“My mum would leave before we’d go to school and work in my aunt’s café and she’d be there until 6 or 7 o’clock at night. So, myself and my two brothers had to look after ourselves to a great degree.”
This wasn’t always easy though. As the children of Kytherian migrants, V’landys and his siblings were easy targets for bullies.
“I went to school pretty early because we couldn’t afford childcare… and it was pretty hard because you couldn’t speak English, you were sort of an alien to these young Aussie kids. They didn’t accept us. To them we became ‘wogs’,” V’landys explains.
Luckily for him, V’landys says he ‘found sport’ and was able to assimilate and ‘become one of them’ through rugby league.
“It’s weird because when I was a kid, you’d run to the fence and they’d pick two captains and then they would pick their teams. The biggest fear I had was not being picked in one of those teams,” V’landys says with a laugh.
“But if you’re a good sports person, people wanted to befriend you. So, I had to be good at it [rugby league] so I was part of that team and they would rely on me. That’s how I assimilated.”
‘Kythera is special’:
Despite this assimilation, it’s clear V’landys still maintains a deep connection to Kythera.
The ARL Commission Chairman openly shares memories of his return visits to the Greek island, including one involving his late grandfather.
“I was a picky eater and my grandfather used to give me almonds… and that’s all I’d eat. When we left [Kythera], I can remember him saying to me ‘I’m going to plant an almond for you so when you come back, it will be this massive almond tree’,” V’landys says with a smile.
“So, when I finished university I returned and sure enough, there was the biggest almond tree you’ve ever seen in front of our house. It was surreal.”
Later, V’landys also pulls out a Greek Orthodox icon of Saint Paraskevi from his wallet and proudly shows it through the Zoom screen.
“When we visited Kythera the second time, we visited our house. I was born in that house and under the bed was this icon and so I picked it up and kept it,” he says.
“So, now I always keep it in my wallet. I’ve lost my wallet twice and twice I’ve got it back with her in it.”
The inspiration of his parents:
Another thing V’landys has never truly lost is his passion and determination for racing and rugby league.
He’s grown from a young man helping out at Harrold Park Paceway with the harness racing, to being headhunted for the role of CEO at Racing NSW.
Later, V’landys says he took on the Chairmanship at the ARL Commission because he felt he had ‘a debt to repay’ to rugby league after it helped him assimilate.
“I’ve spent most of my career in sport really, although I’ve owned some businesses along the way as well. But it’s mainly been racing and rugby league. With Aussies, that would be the dream. Have your two favourite passions… but it’s not a dream. It has its moment,” he says.
Despite these ‘moments,’ V’landys’ profile has surged over the last two years thanks to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on rugby league and racing in Australia.
When I ask him what the key to this success is, he admits it’s tied to his Greek upbringing and shares some words of wisdom for the next generation.
“I take it back to my Greek parents. I’ve always followed my parents lead and really worked hard,” V’landys concludes.
“Here’s this Greek immigrant kid… getting bullied in the playground, not the greatest student on earth but worked hard all his life to get here. That comes with determination and not giving up.
“For me, what I like about where I am is if I can do it, anyone can do it.”