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With Australia last experiencing sprint success through Cathy Freeman’s 400 metres gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Australia’s expectations of sprint success at any Olympic Games should be cautious when compared to other Olympic Games sports.
In this article I discuss why it is difficult for Australia do well in the three sprint events (100 metres to 400 metres), and how we should assess our Olympic Games sprint performers.
Australia’s decline has been gradual over the decades.
In the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games, with Australia having 12 sprint finalists in six different 100 metres and 200 metres finals, Australia won seven medals including gold medal 100 metres-200 metres doubles for Marjorie Jackson (1952) and Betty Cuthbert (1956).
After no sprint finalists in 1960, Australia had ten sprint finalists in 1964 and 1968 in seven events, winning six medals, with Betty Cuthbert being the sole gold medalist (1964) in the very first female 400 metres.
In the 1970s, Australia had six Olympic Games finalists in six sprint events with Raelene Boyle (1972) our only medalist with two silvers in the 100 metres and 200 metres.
In the 1980s, Australia had five Olympic Games sprint finalists (one medal) with Rick Mitchell winning the silver medal in the 1980 400 metres.
In the 1990s, Cathy Freeman was Australia’s only sprint finalist, winning the silver medal in the 1996 400 metres.
At the 2000 Olympic Games, apart from Freeman’s 400 metres gold medal, Australia had two sprint finalists in the 200 metres (Freeman and Melinda Gainsford).
From 2004 to 2016, Australia’s only sprint finalist has been Steve Solomon in the 2012 400 metres.
So what explains Australia’s sprinting decline?
There is no doubt that a major reason is much greater global competition.
Whereas once there was just 27 competitors in the 1956 Olympic Games female 200 metres event, with only 15 breaking 25 seconds in the first round, an increasingly professional approach to the sport around the world has resulted in many athletes excelling.
I argue this despite the US and Caribbean sprinters recently dominating the Olympic Games sprints.
From 2004 to 2016, US and Caribbean male sprinters won 31 of 36 Olympic Games medals. In the female sprints from 2004 to 2016, the US and Caribbean countries won 30 of the 36 Olympic Games medals.
However, observing world lists shows just how competitive the sprints have become with very good runners around the world.
As of July 26, 2021, while Australia’s Hana Basic had the 59th fastest 2021 world time of 11.16, there was at least one runner from 17 different countries that ranked higher.
In the mens 100 metres, while Rohan Browning has the 36th fastest world time, at least one sprinter from 15 countries had faster times.
While Australia can hope that the next Cathy Freeman or Raelene Boyle is not too far away, there are a number of reasons why it is more difficult to succeed in track sprinting when compared to other Olympic Games sports.
Unlike sports such as swimming, track cycling and rowing, which require expensive facilities and equipment, any nation (rich or poor) can participate in track, which requires the most basic of athletics fields.
While cultural affinity with a certain sport can go a long way, as seen by Australia’s ongoing prowess in swimming and Jamaica’s incredible passion for sprinting, Australia has a much smaller track talent pool to work with when compared to the US, which had around 1.1 million high school students participate in track and field in 2018-2019.
And unlike the longer distance running events where superior fitness comes from hard work, which goes a long way towards delivering success, it is so much harder to produce a world-class sprinter without the raw talent given that most good sprinters are evident from a very young age.
You only have to note the great Usain Bolt, who won the 100 metres-200 metres Olympic Games double in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and broke 20 seconds for the 200 metres (19.93) when just 17 years of age.
So given the strong likelihood that sprinting success for Australia may be rare, what is the best way to assess our Olympic Games sprinters?
For those Australian sprinters that do qualify for the Olympic Games sprint events, a considerable achievement in itself given how competitive the 100 metres-400 metres sprints are today at the world level, the only reasonable way to assess Olympic Games performances is in relation to their best times.
For example, you can look at the performances of the ten Australian sprinters who represented Australia at the Olympic Games from 2004 to 2016.
At the 2004 Olympic Games, Adam Miller ran his 200 metres in 21.31 (+2.2 m/s), outside his best time that year of 20.47 (+1.7) run on February 8.
In the 400 metres, Casey Vincent ran 46.09 for the 400 metres after a 45.30 in Melbourne on February 12, 2004.
In the female 200 metres, Lauren Hewitt ran her season best 22.87 (−0.1 m/s), not far outside her 2003 best of 22.79 (+1.6) and her personal best of 22.52 (+1.5) at Canberra on January, 15 2000.
At the 2008 Olympic Games, 400 metres personal bests were run by Joel Milburn and Sean Wroe (44.80 and 45.17) to qualify for the semi-finals (45.06 and 45.56).
In the female 400 metres, Tamsyn Manou ran 52.38, outside her 51.44 run at Brisbane on February 29, 2008.
At the 2012 Olympic Games, Steve Solomon ran two personal bests for the 400 metres (45.18 and 44.97) before running slightly slower in the final (45.14).
In the female 100 metres, Melissa Breen ran 11.34, just outside her 2012 best of 11.27 (+2.0) run in Luzern on July 17, 2012.
At the 2016 Olympic Games, Alex Hartmann ran 21.02 (+0.4 m/s) for the 200 metres, outside his 20.45 (-0.5) run in Canberra on March 7, 2016.
In the female 200 metres, Ella Nelson ran a personal best of 22.50.
In the female 400 metres, Morgan Mitchell ran 51.30, just outside her best of 51.25 run in Birmingham on June 5, 2016.
And Anneliese Rubie ran a season best of 51.92, not far outside her personal best of 51.69 run at the 2015 Beijing World Championships.
At the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, where no Australian sprinter is expected to make a final, I will be interested to see how our sprinters fare in relation to their best 2021 performances.
So good luck to the Australian sprinting team at Tokyo: Rohan Browning and Hana Basic in the 100 metres, Riley Day in the 200 metres, and Alexander Beck, Steve Solomon and Bendere Oboya in the 400 metres.
Hopefully they can run very close to their best ever performances, or even better produce some personal bests.