There have been exciting advances on the Australian indoor all-time list in recent weeks. A number of athletes – including Stewart McSweyn, Morgan McDonald, Ollie Hoare and Jessica Hull – have produced performances putting them among the top Australians ever.
McDonald ran 7:42.76 for 3000 metres at New York’s famous Millrose Games (I’d say traditional Millrose Games, but the meeting has re-located in recent years from its historic home at Madison Square Garden to The Armory).
Hoare ran 3:54.83 for the mile at the same meeting, in the race in which Ethiopia’s Yomif Kejelcha missed the world record by one-hundredth of a second. Not to be left out of discussions, McSweyn ran 7:44.90 in France, while Hull ran 8:53.91 for 3000 in Seattle. Peter Bol, Joe Deng and Jordan Williamsz have all run top-10 times at 800.
McDonald moved to second on the all-time list at 3000, behind Craig Mottram’s national record 7:34.50. McSweyn is now fourth. Hoare missed the Australian record by just 0.06 and also moved to second on the 1500 list with his split time of 3:39.50.
The excitement is tempered somewhat – well, a little, at least – by the fact that Australian all-time lists don’t run all that deep. Nor are they necessarily populated by the household names of our sport. OK, we all remember Craig Mottram, and many of us would remember Mark Fountain, but who knew that Fountain held the national indoor mile record at 3:54.77, set way back in 2005. Mottram is second on the list with 3:54.81.
And while Hoare’s 1500 time puts him second on the all-time 1500 list, he is a full three seconds down on record-holder Ryan Gregson. No-one else is under 3:40.
Isobel Batt-Doyle recently ran 15:40.53 for second on the all-time women’s 5000 list. Hats off to you if you knew that the record-holder – a record set just last December – was Jessica Patterson at 15:34.76. The record Joe Deng and Peter Bol are chasing now is held, not by Ralph Doubell, but by Ryan Foster.*
Another Foster, the legendary British runner Brendan, once set a world record for 3000 metres. He was asked how it felt to be the best in the world. “I’m not even the best runner in Gateshead,” replied Foster**. “I’m just the best of those who’ve tried.”
Australian indoor athletics if like that. For the most part, you’re only the best of those who have tried and those who have tried are largely the handful who have competed in a world indoor championships and the few handfuls more who have attended US colleges on scholarship, though the latter group is growing.
The world indoor championships were first conducted back in 1987 (there was a forerunner in 1985, the World Indoor Games, at which Mike Hillardt won the 1500 metres). For most of that time, Australia has sent small teams of elite athletes. Our national record holders are, for the most part, a collection of athletics notables – as well as some already mentioned, others include Sally Pearson, Steve Hooker, Fabrice Lapierre, Tamsyn Lewis, Tim Forsyth, Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, Kyle Vander Kuyp, Scott Martin, Matt Shirvington and Benita Willis – the all-time top 10s, not so much.
In line, then, with the advice to those seeking fame and fortune in 19th century USA to “Go west, young man,” young Australian male, and female, athletes seeking to write their names in the record books might be well advised to, “Go indoors.”
First, though, go somewhere else. The history of indoor athletics in Australia would suggest that the word limited is a very good one when describing the number of opportunities likely to be found here. The first indoor meetings, back in the 1930s in Melbourne, were held on board tracks at both the Royal Exhibition Building (also the venue for Australia’s inaugural Federal Parliament) and the St Moritz ice-skating rink.
The Exhibition Building has never seen another indoor athletics meeting (though the Federal Parliament is still going). St Moritz is long-since gone. Not exactly propitious portents for indoor track and field.
The early 1990s saw a private promoter attempt to set up a circuit of meetings in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. Meeting one got off the ground in Brisbane – on a 130m board track. That meant six-and-a-bit laps to the 800m. The winner, Paul Cleary, was the one who got least giddy!
The series folded after one meeting. Carl Lewis, who had come to Australia contracted to appear at the meetings, not to compete, was hoping to recoup money owing to him from an earlier promotion. He left no better off than when he arrived.
The ill-fated series was exciting and unpredictable, just not in the way the promoter, and athletics fans, had hoped. Perhaps a lesson to us all there: indoor athletics is great entertainment, just don’t read more into it than that.
*Doubell’s fastest indoor 880 – 1:47.9a – is intrinsically faster than Foster’s 1:47.48 for 800 metres.
**As with many famous running quotes, this one has been paraphrased about a billion times. This version seems most apt here.
Cover photo thanks to Patrick Holleran — Shannon Digital Imaging