Athletics Medals Might Be Thin On The Ground But That's Not The Point

27/08/2015 7:18 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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BEIJING, CHINA - AUGUST 26: Collis Birmingham of Australia (C) and Galen Rupp of the United States compete in the Men's 5000 metres heats during day five of the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships Beijing 2015 at Beijing National Stadium on August 26, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Australia is a sporting mad nation – no news there. So when we look to a major event like the World Athletics Championships, just one year out from an Olympics, we look to our athletes with great expectations.

The 2015 World Athletics Championships began this week in Beijing and Athletics Australia forewarned that there may be no medals coming home.

On the surface, that may be of concern one year out from an Olympic Games, but when you consider that Athletics Australia is going through a rebuilding of the overall program following a major review conducted after the Glasgow Commonwealth Games last year, it may be a reasonable assertion.

So, looking to Beijing with tempered expectations, it is worth contemplating the bigger picture of what it means for the athletes to be there and the heightened excitement when success comes in the form of a podium place.

On Tuesday, Australian athlete Fabrice Lapierre won a silver medal in the Men’s Long Jump.

Dave Culbert is a former Australian track and field athlete, Commonwealth Games silver medallist, and now athletics expert and media commentator. He says that the success is in getting to the major events and winning, once there, is practically a lottery.

“The long jump last night (Tuesday) sums up everything really. The gold and silver medallists weren’t the favorites but they were the ones who performed on the night and that’s what sums up World Athletics.”

“In many events, the depth is so great there’s 30 athletes who can make it through to the semi-finals; there’s probably 20 long jumpers that could’ve made it through to the top eight; but Fabrice (Lapierre) did a fantastic job on the night and was able to get a medal. And from an Australian perspective, we’ve probably got ten athletes that are in exactly the same boat as that.”

Culbert, speaking from Beijing, said for a track and field athlete, just making it to the final of the 100m at a major international athletics event, for example, and finishing last means you are among the eight fastest people in the world, not that you came eighth in the race. Such is the depth of international athletes and the strength of the competition and what the athletes therefore need to take out of the experience.

Australians grow up playing various sports but one of the traditional past-times of an Australian childhood is Little Athletics, every weekend during the spring and summer months.

The assumption is that this is where our young Olympians and international athletes are groomed and enticed but Dave Culbert says the pathway has changed and while those weekend activities at the local athletics track give children a taste of a wide variety of sports, it is more a way of getting them groomed for broader competitive sports through fitness.

“It’s definitely not a pathway to an athletics career and Little Athletics have moved away from that now saying that they’re the pathway if you want to be a great footballer or you want to be a good netballer.”

So demanding medals of our athletes once they get to the big stage is one thing, but perhaps in the sports arena of track and field, what we should not lose sight of is giving credit to them for making it to that stage, then hope they excel on the day to the extent of their full potential.

“We’re always going with six to eight chances and come home with two or three and you know, if you come home with one medal, I think you’re doing pretty well from a World Championship,” says Culbert.

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