Two walkers, three throwers - two in one event – my first thought on reading Track & Field News’ annual rankings was: “Where’s the Aussie track team.”
There is Sally Pearson, of course, but an injury-affected season meant that even the great Sally dropped from number one in the 100 metres hurdles in 2011 and 2012 (when she was also world and Olympic champions, respectively), to number three in 2013.
Pearson’s hamstring will get better, of course, but will significantly more Australian track athletes get a top-10 ranking any time soon, I wonder.
End-of-year is the season of lists, and no lists are more eagerly anticipated than the Track & Field News’ rankings. Despite many imitations, the rigorous T&FN formula of ‘honours won, head-to-head record and sequence of marks’, remains the most credible in the sport.
An examination of T&FN’s rankings in recent years suggests the scarcity of Australian tracksters is no new thing. In 2012, Pearson was the only one of the five Australian top-10 rankers to do so in a track event (the others, walker Jared Tallent (20/50k), discus thrower Dani Samuels and long jumper Mitchell Watt).
Likewise, in 2011, Pearson was again the only track athlete to join walkers Tallent and Luke Adams, Watt and throwers Benn Harradine (discus) and Jarrod Bannister (javelin) in achieving a ranking.
You have to go back to 2010, when Ryan Gregson (10th in the 1500) joined Pearson in gaining a top-10 ranking in a track event (Steve Hooker, Samuels, Bannister and Harradine gave us a total of six athletes ranked) to find a year in which more than one track athlete ranked.
Taking the first year of each decade since the 1980s as a snapshot does not change the picture overly much. In 1980, Rick Mitchell’s silver medal in the 400 metres earned him a no.2 ranking, making it one track athlete out of two rankers (triple jumper Ian Campbell, 7th, was the other one).
It was again a 50-50 split between track and road 10 years later in the Auckland Commonwealth Games year. On the track (and field), Simon Doyle ranked world number two at 1500 and Jane Flemming number three at the heptathlon. Kerry Saxby-Junna was ranked number one in the 20k road walk and Steve Moneghetti third in the marathon.
Not surprisingly, Sydney 2000 brought a slew of rankings along with the home Olympic Games. Eleven athletes were ranked in 12 events – Freeman ranked in both 400 and 200 metres. There were three track athletes – Freeman (twice), Melinda Gainsford-Taylor (no.5 at 200) and Lauren Hewitt (10 at 200), one road – Saxby-Junna 10th in the walk, and seven field athletes – Jai Taurima and Peter Burge, fourth and sixth in the long jump; Grigorieva and Emma George, seventh and tenth in the pole vault; Lisa-Marie Vizaniari ninth in the discus, Debbie Sosimenko fifth in the hammer and Dmitry Markov ninth in the pole vault.
Then, in 2010, there were six, as already listed.
So, 2013’s six seems neither seems out of whack in number or composition. One track – Pearson, two road – Bird-Smith and Tallent, and three field – Mickle, Mitchell and Samuels.
There are a few possible reasons why track athletes might find it harder to get a ranking than field eventers. Take Zoe Buckman, who must have been desperately unlucky to miss a top-10 ranking in the 1500, given the nature of her performances in Moscow, where she won both heat and semi-final before coming seventh in the final.
In earlier times, that would almost guarantee a top-10 rank. But the growth in significance of the IAAF Diamond League may have cost Buckman. She had three IDL races for fourth in London (a plus) 11th in Birmingham and a ‘DNF’ in the final. The latter two probably cost her against others who raced more often and more consistently in the IDL.
This new reality possibly impacts less on the field events where there is still more emphasis on outright performances – a 70m discus throw, for example, tends to be considered highly whether it comes in the Zurich IDL or a small meeting somewhere else. As a corollary, it is much less likely a male middle-distance runner is going to run 3:31 for 1500 without much competition at a small meeting than a field eventer produce a big mark.
Maybe these things figure in the minds of the rankings panellists, maybe they don’t. In any case, limited competitive opportunities have always been a handicap for Oceania athletes, and remain so. Unless you can pull off the trick of living on the road for six months a year, or be good enough – as Pearson has been – of doing a lot in a limited number of competitions, it will be difficult to be ranked top-10 in a system which values more and more competitions outside the major championships.
More worrying than the difficulty facing Australian track athletes in achieving a top-10 ranking, is the difficulty of them qualifying at all. Recent times have seen the Delhi Commonwealth Games team in which there were no female competitors in six of the 10 track events and just one in three of the four others. In Moscow, there were no individual male competitors at 100, 400, 1500 metres, at 110 hurdles or the steeple – five out of the 10 individual track events.
Footnote: It’s never been easy for Australians to crack the top-10 off limited opportunities. For historical perspective, here is a list (corrections wecome) of the most recent top-10 in all the Olympic events (ranking in parentheses after athlete name).
Last Australian ranker by event
100 Gary Holdsworth (10)1967 Raelene Boyle (6) 1976