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Opinion

Rating Australia’s top ten all-time Olympic Games running performers

Cathy Freeman’s 400-metre gold was an unforgettable moment of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. (Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Roar Guru
2 days ago
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While we wait for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games (OG) to see if Australia can win another running medal, unquestionably an immense challenge given that Australia has won few medals per decade since the golden years of the 1950s and 1960s, this article looks back at past OG to rate Australia’s top ten running performances over the years.

My number one is Herb Elliot’s 1960 1500m gold medal performance in Rome when he destroyed the field to win by 2.8 seconds when breaking his own world record with a time of 3:35.6.

Number two is Ralph Doubell’s gold medal in the 1968 800m when running a world record at altitude in Mexico City when chasing down the front runner Wilson Kiprugut (50.98 first 400m) who was Kenya’s first ever medalist at the 1964 OG.

Number three is Cathy Freeman with her two OG 400m medals.

In the 1996 Atlanta OG, Freeman won silver in 1996 at Atlanta running 48.63, behind Marie-José Pérec (48.25) who won her second OG 400m gold medal after winning in 1992.

Freeman’s 1996 time remains the second fastest ever OG 400m time.

In the 2000 Sydney OG, Freeman won gold in a time of 49.11, under immense pressure as the home town hero and heavy favourite.

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Cathy Freeman

Cathy Freeman’s 400-metre gold was an unforgettable moment of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. (Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Number four is Betty Cuthbert, the only athlete (male or female) of any nation to ever win gold medals in the sprint treble (100m, 200m and 400m) albeit in different games.

Cuthbert won the 100m 11.5 and 200m 23.4 in the 1956 OG in Melbourne, and the 400m in 52.0 in the 1964 OG in Tokyo. Here is her 1956 performance.

Number five is Raelene Boyle who won three silver medals: 1968 200m with a time of 22.74 in Mexico City, and 1972 100m and 200m in Munich with times of 11.23 and 1972 200m 22.45.

Here is Boyle’s silver medal in the 1972 200m.
Number six is Sally Pearson, Australia’s only track medalist since Cathy Freeman, who won silver in the 2008 100m hurdles in 12.64, and gold medal in the 2012 100m hurdles in a very fast 12.35 (see clip). Here is Pearson’s gold medal run. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6LpHvPxn_s

Number seven is Peter Norman who won the silver medal in the 1968 200m with a time of 20.06, the only Australia male to win a sprint silver when splitting the heavily favoured Americans Tommy Smith and John Carlos.

Number eight is Debbie Flintoff-King, who won gold in the 1988 400m hurdles in a very fast personal best of 53.17, the first Australian to win a gold medal since 1968.

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Number nine is Marjorie Jackson for winning the 1952 100m in 11.5 (equal world record) by 0.3 seconds, and the 200m in 23.7 (world record 23.4 in the semi-finals).

Number ten is Shirley Strickland (later de la Hunty 1956) who won the most ever individual OG medals (five), and was the only Australian to win individual track medal at three successive OG.

In 1948 (London), she won bronze medals in the 100m 12.2 and 80m hurdles 11.4.
In 1952 (Helsinki), gold in the 80m hurdles with a world record 10.9, and bronze in the 100m with 11.9.
In 1956 (Melbourne), gold in the 80m hurdles with 10.7.

As I have already indicated, my list is a subjective and readers may have a different list when observing the other Australians who won OG medals.

1896 (Athens): Edwin Flack gold in the 800m and 1500m.
1956 (Melbourne): Hec Hogan bronze 100m 10.6, John Landy bronze 1500m 3:42.0, Allan Lawrence bronze 10,000m 28:53.6, Marlene Mathews bronze 100m 11.7 and bronze 200m 23.8, and Norma Thrower bronze 80m hurdles 11.0.
1960 (Rome): David Power bronze 10,000m 28:38.2.
1964 (Tokyo): Ron Clarke bronze 1964 10,000m 28:25.8, Marilyn Black bronze 200m 23.1, Judy Amoore bronze 400m 53.4, and Pam Kilborn bronze 80m hurdles 10.6.
1968 (Mexico City): Jenny Lamy bronze 200m 22.88, Maureen Caird gold 80m hurdles 10.39, and Pam Kilborn silver 10.46.
1980 (Moscow): Rick Mitchell silver 400m 44.84.
1988 (Seoul): Lisa Martin-Ondieki silver marathon 2:25.53.

My list leaves out Ron Clarke, whose only OG medal was the bronze medal in the 1964 10,000m when running 28:25.8 behind the American Billy Mills who ran a personal best by nearly 50 seconds.

Clarke, as one of the world’s great 1960s long distance track stars during the 1960s, indeed deserves a mention for the great public interest he attracted in Australia and in Europe through his many world records, which included breaking the 5,000m and 10,000m world records a number of times.

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Clarke’s best ever times were 13:16.6 for the 5,000m (1966) and 27:39.89 for the 10,000m (1965)

One meeting at Melbourne’s Olympic Park in 1964 attracted 20,000 people with Channel Seven’s TV news breaking into its broadcast to cover his final lap of a world record-breaking three-mile race.

With Clarke running himself into exhaustion when sixth in the 10,000m at altitude in the 1968 OG in Mexico City, which Clarke felt damaged his heart long term, the great Emil Zátopek shortly after the 1968 OG gave him one of his four OG gold medals in recognition of how great Clarke was as a runner.

Whatever our choices for Australia’s top ten OG running performances, and I hope to hear the different views, we all hope that Australia can win another running medal in 2021.

While Track and Field News in April 2021 picked no Australian runner to medal, albeit that source acknowledged that it was still too early to know, I feel Oliver Hoare will be Australia’s best chance to medal in the 1500m.

But we shall see.

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