Australian athletics team looking good
Once every four years, after the swimming is finished, Australia suddenly becomes interested in athletics. This time around, there is good reason to pay attention.
Track and field is the most competitive sport in the world – the vast majority of humans through history have tried running, jumping and throwing. These are the most basic of human physical efforts, and it genuinely means something to be among the best at them.
Because of the accessibility of athletic events, the medals are spread around much more widely than in other sports Australia is usually good at, like swimming, rowing, and track cycling.
Unfortunately, this leads to a common misconception that we, as a nation, are crap at track and field. This is wrong, wrong and damned wrong. In fact, Australia has finished in the top 10 countries overall in the last three major international championships. In the most competitive sport on Earth, that’s not bad at all.
In the most recent world championships, in Daegu in 2011, the Australian Flame finished eighth on the medal tally, with one gold, one silver and two bronze. In 2009, in the Berlin Olympic stadium, Australia finished 10th, with two gold and two bronze.
In Beijing, the Flame finished eighth on the medal table, led by Steve Hooker’s famous gold medal in the pole vault, two silver and a bronze.
Expectations are similar for this Olympics, with a couple of outstanding gold medal chances in hurdler Sally Pearson and Mitchell Watt, and a number of lesser-known chances for medals including a hopefully reinvigorated Hooker.
The widely criticised team selection process (first the selectors were castigated for being too harsh, then for being too soft and playing favourites) resulted in one of the largest Australian teams ever selected, almost all of whom have reached the A standard.
The A standards are set at a level which is expected to reach the semi-final stage of each event, so it’s fantastic to have so many athletes now competing at this level. They all deserve their places.
So, it’s probably worthwhile to give the casual fan an overview of Australia’s best chances for medals and finals, before the track and field programme kicks off on Friday. For reasons of space, I’ve split this up into two articles: running/walking, and jumping/throwing.
Let’s start with the running and walking events.
Clearly, the USA and Jamaica dominate the sprints, and Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco are likely to claim many of the medals in the middle distance and distance events, but we could definitely pick up a couple of medals in the racing events.
Sally Pearson is the golden girl of Australian athletics at the moment, and deservedly so given her status as world champion, Olympic silver medallist, Commonwealth champion, 2011 IAAF World Athlete of the Year and a 2012 world leader. She has been beaten only once in her last 35-odd races.
Pearson turns into a stone cold killer when she steps up to the blocks. She will take a lot of beating – watch out for her blistering start over the first two hurdles.
Jared Tallent is a good chance of a medal in the walks, currently being ranked third in the 50km walk after a third place in Saransk in May, and 20th in the 20km walk. He took silver in the 50km and bronze in the 20km in Beijing, and another bronze in the 50km in Daegu, so it’s familiar territory for him.
Jared’s wife Claire Tallent is ranked in the top 20 in the women’s 20km walk.
The men’s 4x400m squad is probably the best chance of our relay teams. Australia is currently ranked 14th, but six of the teams ahead in the list are US College or domestic invitational teams – leaving the Australian squad effectively eighth out of the national teams eligible to compete in the Olympics.
There are a few countries in the 3:01 range, so if the relay squad can get Joel Milburn into his best form after a return from injury, and if Steve Solomon continues to improve, they could run a few tenths quicker than the 3:01.58 they ran in Daegu in May and be in the hunt for medals.
The other wild card is of course John Steffensen, who might be fired up after his very public dummy spit before the Games.
The team will probably use one or both of 400m hurdlers Tristan Thomas and Brendan Cole in the heats, to keep relay squad members fresh.
Both Thomas and Cole (a semi-finalist at the 2009 world championships) will be aiming to make the final of the 400m hurdles, but would probably have to run personal bests (or close to) to earn a spot. In the women’s 400m hurdles, Lauren Boden will be aiming for the semis.
In the middle distance events, Jeff Risely only decided this week to run the 800m, after running a brilliant 1:44.48 in Lignano on the 17th of July.
This time ranks Risely 17th in the world this year, but he is now second-fastest Australian of all time, behind Ralph Doubell’s national record of 1:44.40 set in Mexico City in 1968. Australia’s middle distance community will go absolutely mental if that national record is finally improved after 44 years of trying.
The 800m will almost certainly be won by the once-in-a-generation talent David Rudisha of Kenya, who holds the world record of 1:41.01 and the world lead of 1:41.54 this year. However, the next fastest man has only run 1:43.01, giving Risely a reasonable chance of making the final if he can replicate a sub-1:45 performance.
Olympic middle distance races tend to be run tactically with a vicious kick – Wilfred Bungei won in Beijing in a relatively slow 1:44.65, so Risely is certainly in the vicinity on time alone.
The big question is whether he has the finishing kick to get through the rounds. Stepping down from the 1500m will test his speed and change of pace against the top 800m runners, so Risely’s best chance is probably for Rudisha (or someone else) to drag the pack through in a fast split, allowing Risely to use his 1500m strength and maintain a more even pace.
A slow first lap and chaotic bunch sprint at the last bend probably won’t suit the tall, long-striding Australian.
Ryan Gregson is hovering around the top 20 in the 1500m, but seems to be on the way back to his best time of 3:31.06 after a couple of years battling injuries. If so, Gregson will be a good chance of making the final.
A slow tactical race would give him the chance to unleash his finishing kick, but at this level you need to be able to cover the last 200m incredibly quickly to medal.
In the flat sprints, Australia has only two individual competitors, both of whom were the beneficiaries of discretionary selection. Melissa Breen was selected in the women’s 100m after running a strong series of fast B qualifiers, and promptly celebrated by running an A qualifier to vindicate the decision.
There was no qualifier in the men’s individual 100m or 200m, and the controversial (but in my view, pragmatic) selection of Steve Solomon in the 400m is the only individual competitor in the men’s sprints. Like Breen, Solomon will be doing well to make the semis, but both are only young (Solomon having just competed at the world junior championships) and the experience will be very useful.
Due to a lack of space, I’ve generally only highlighted the athletes I feel are the best chances of a medal or a final, but there are lots of other Australians racing, so make sure you keep an eye out in most events.
I’ll post my preview of the field events shortly, keep an eye out!
Plenty of excitement ahead for those cheering on the green and gold, and Athletics Victoria has prepared an excellent guide to event times and athletes competing in each event, which you can download here.
Of course, the performances from the rest of the world look set to be amazing too!
Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. A former A-grade club athlete, and now a keen recreational cyclist and roller racer, he once rode very slowly up Mont Ventoux. Tim tweets about sport at @timehhh_sp.