Turning point for Australian women’s athletics
21 August 2016
ATHLETICS: With two sessions of competition remaining, the Australian women’s track and field squad could return home without a medal from Rio.
On the surface it may look like a below par campaign, but a closer examination of the results reveals not just a good overall result, but maybe a turning point, particularly for our women’s track and field team.
Since the halcyon days of Australian track and field in the 1950s and ’60s, medal haul expectations at the Olympics have hovered around just a handful.
This stems from the very global nature of athletes where over 200 countries contest the sport.
Since 1972 athletics has returned medal hauls of between nil (in 1976) and four (Beijing) - averaging three medals.
So why could a nil return in Rio, for the women in particular, be considered a good achievement?
Well, along with those historic low medal returns, too many of the athletes exited the completion in the first round.
From Sydney to London, on average 39% did not qualify for the second round, which varies from a semi-final to a final, depending on the event.
But in Rio, this has rocketed to 82%. In recent decades we have never seen our athletes be so competitive.
Another comparison is the increase in top-10 finishes amongst the women. From Athens to London only two or three placed in the top-10.
In Rio we have had 12, including the women’s 4x400m relay team which will run this evening and go into the race only 1.17 seconds from the third placed qualifier.
Another feature is the competitiveness of our women across all disciplines.
There have been progressions in sprints, hurdles, distance, jumps, throws and relays.
In particular, the distance women have been terrific.
In the women’s 1500m this year we witnessed the best Australian depth in the history of the event and that transformed into performances on the world stage with all three, Jenny Blundell, Linden Hall and Zoe Buckman, qualifying for the semi-final.
Three athletes, Gen LaCaze, Madeline Heiner-Hills and Eloise Wellings were extraordinary in the women’s steeplechase (LaCaze and Heiner-Hills), 5000m (all three) and 10,000m (Wellings) events.
Never previously have we had a finalist in the steeple and 5000m events, but in Rio two progressed to the steeplechase final and all three in the 5000m.
Then in the finals, they were not just there for experience, they were competitive, four setting personal bests and the fifth her fastest time for 10 years and one day.
Wellings started the moment for the week with a personal best in the 10,000m in the opening session of the athletics program.
It continued on to the road with all three marathoners in the top-32 - we have never had more than one place that high at an Olympic Games. In the 20km walk, Regan Lamble was an outstanding top-10, the third best ever placing and the leading result for 12 years.
In the hurdles, Lauren Wells progressed to her fifth consecutive semi-final at an Olympics or World Championships.
The sprinters were a revelation. Three of the four made semi-finals, Morgan Mitchell and Anneliese Rubie in the 400m and Ella Nelson going so close to a 200m finals berth, which would have been our first in any sprints for 16 years.
The women’s 4x400m relay did become the first women’s relay to reach a final in 16 years.
The field was just as strong with two fourths, a sixth and a seventh. On a different day, there marks would have put the athletes on the podium.
Alana Boyd’s fourth was the same height as the bronze medallist. It was the highest leap by an Australian in a major competition.
Kathryn Mitchell’s sixth place in the javelin was within one metre of the silver medal. In the discus, Dani Samuels fell just 44 centimetres short of a medal. Brooke Stratton’s seventh was the best jumps result for 12 years, since 2004, then bettered by Boyd’s heroics. Overall in the field, four of the seven progressed to the final.
The strong performance from the women in the athletics team has set up a great platform for future athletes.
They will feel they are not there to make up the numbers, but can be genuinely competitive. This competitiveness and depth will foster a greater peak for the future.