A famous quote attributed to the late Ron Clarke reads “The hardest step for a runner to take, is the first one out the door”.
Just recently, we celebrated the 60 year anniversary of the Melbourne Olympic Games, where an 18-year-old Clarke stood aloft at the MCG to light the Olympic flame. Now as we bid farewell to 2016, an Olympic year, Australian athletics embarks on a new era of athletics in Australia.
With a shake-up of the summer calendar and the much anticipated announcement of Nitro Athletics, 2016 saw a new generation of athletes emerge ready to take on the world.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, we saw 28 Australians finish in the top 16 compared with 16 at the London Games. Of those 28, nine Aussies were under 25 years old.
Dane Bird-Smith (Qld), the 24-year-old Queenslander won bronze at his debut Games in the 20km walk. It was a stellar season for the ‘Bird-man’, who also broke the Australian record for the 5000m walk in Melbourne in March.
Days later on the same circuit in Rio, Jared Tallent (SA) walked into the history books after winning the silver medal for the 50km walk. His fourth Olympic medal, Tallent became the most decorated Australian male athletics Olympian of all time.
The performance capped off an incredible year for Tallent, who in July was presented with his long awaited gold medal from the London 2012 Olympics. Surrounded by family and friends from the athletics community on the steps of the Old Treasury Building in Melbourne, Tallent was presented the medal in a ceremony which carried full Olympic protocol.
Inside Rio’s Olympic Stadium, another Australian athletics stalwart Dani Samuels (NSW) fell agonisingly short of her maiden Olympic medal, placing fourth in the discus throw with 64.90m. A medal would’ve been a just reward for Samuels who has dominated women’s throwing domestically for the most part of the last decade, and in 2016 won her 19th Australian championship title (6 in shotput, 13 in discus).
Outgoing pole vault champion Alana Boyd (Qld) had a 2016 to remember. Months before she announced her retirement Boyd capped off a stellar athletics career in 2016 by breaking her own Australian record to leap 4.81m at a meet in Sippy Downs (Qld).
Later, at her third Olympics in Rio, Boyd cleared 4.80m to finish in fourth place. In a heart-warming gesture that was broadcast around the world, Boyd found the courage to hug and congratulate Eliza McCartney (NZL) after they both cleared 4.80m, but due to countback, the 19-year-old took the bronze medal.
Javelin thrower, Kathryn Mitchell (Vic) threw just 1cm shy of her season’s best to finish in sixth place at her second Olympic Games. The throw was a continuation of the consistent form she has showed throughout the IAAF's Diamond League series – where she finished the season in second place.
26-year-old long jumper Henry Frayne was another Rio finalist, finishing in 7th place. Overcoming a horror run of injury in recent years, the Gary Bourne coached Queenslander's 8.06m was his best jump at a senior international outdoor competition.
In the same competition, fellow long jumper and 2016 Australian champion Fabrice Lapierre (NSW) struggled to find the board in Rio, bowing out of the qualifying round. It was a disappointing finish considering his successful year. At the IAAF World Indoor Championships, Lapierre jumped an Australian indoor record to win silver, whilst his consistent form at the IAAF Diamond League series, saw him walk away as champion of the season.
After a tough couple of years hampered by illness and injury, rising star Brooke Stratton (Vic) leapt into another class in 2016, breaking Bronwyn Thompson’s Australian long jump record with 7.05m (w:+2.0) at the Perth Track Classic in March. Stratton took this confidence into her first Olympic campaign as she made the final of the women’s long jump finishing 7th in the 38 woman field. Stratton's jump still sits as the 6th best recorded in the world in 2016.
The Australian women’s distance running contingent of Madeline Hills (NSW, 3000m Steeplechase, 5000m), Genevieve LaCaze (Vic, 3000m Steeplechase, 5000m) and Eloise Wellings (NSW, 10,000m, 5000m) had many Australians in awe of their performances against the world’s best in Rio.
Punching well above their pre-event rankings, the three women achieved much more than most expected as they collectively qualified for five finals, recorded nine season’s best efforts, six personal bests and five top-10 finishes whilst at the Games.
Add this LaCaze’s Australian record time of 9.14.28 in the 3000m steeplechase at the Paris Diamond League and you have a pretty well successful year for the Aussie distance runners.
The Australian Olympic 4x400m relay team of Morgan Mitchell (Vic), Anneliese Rubie (NSW), Caitlin Sargent-Jones (NSW) and Jess Thornton (NSW) made waves when they became the first Australians to make the final of the women’s event in 16 years. With an average age of less than 22, everything is looking promising for these one-lap wonders.
Damien Birkinhead (Vic) made the final of the men’s shotput, only the second Australian to do so in the past 50 years. In February, the ‘Colossus of Corio’ threw 21.21m in Hobart to jump to second on the all-time Australian list.
After an injury affected 2015 season, World Junior Championships medallist Cedric Dubler (Qld) showed his immense talent for the decathlon as he accumulated 8114 points at this year’s Australian Athletics Championships in April. In doing so, Dubler became Australia’s first Olympic representative in the multi-event since Scott Ferrier in Sydney 2000.
Other finalists in Rio included the thrilling late run from Ryan Gregson (Vic) in the 1500m. Gregson found particularly strong form in 2016, edging closer to his 2010 Australian 1500m record multiple times.
Of the walkers, Regan Lamble (Vic) was particularly impressive in 2016, finishing 9th in the 20km walk in Rio and jumping up to 3rd on the all-time 20km walk list. Victorian walker Chris Erickson PB’d in the 50km walk in Rio finishing 10th – his best placing at an Olympics.
Ella Nelson (NSW) took a great leap forward on the international stage, running strongly to just miss the 200m final by the smallest of margins – 0.01 seconds.
READ: Six great Australian performances at the Rio Olympics
Our Paralympians performed exceptionally too on the world stage, as the athletics section of the team flew home with 26 medals in total (3 gold, 9 silver, 14 bronze).
James Turner (NSW), the Pararoo-turned-middle distance runner, shocked us all by trouncing the field in the 800m to win gold in world record time.
South Australian teenager Brayden Davidson won gold in Rio in a nail-biting F36 long jump contest for athletes with cerebral palsy with a Paralympic record breaking jump that was a 11cm personal best.
Canberra-based sprinter, Scott Reardon (ACT) was crowned Paralympic champion after charging through his final of the T42 100m for leg amputees. Reardon’s victory added to the gold medal he won at the Doha 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships last year and improves on the silver medal he won in the same event at London 2012 four years ago.
Experienced campaigner Angela Ballard (NSW) moved her total Paralympic Games medal tally to eight with two bronze medal performances in the T53 100m and 400m respectively in Rio. Co-captain of the Australian athletics team, Ballard was also part of the T53-54 4x400m wheelchair relay team who retrospectively picked up the silver medal after initially being disqualified.
Leading from the front, Australian Paralympic Team Captain Kurt Fearnley (NSW) completed his fifth and final Paralympic Games campaign in Rio. Fearnley won the silver medal in the men’s T54 marathon as well as a bronze in the T54 5000m. Fearnley retires from Paralympic competition with 13 Paralympic medals (three golds, seven silvers and three bronzes).
Australia’s para-athletics team future looks incredibly bright, where Brayden Davidson (SA, F36 long jump), Isis Holt, who bettered her own 100m world record multiple times in 2016, (Vic, T35 100m/200m), Rheed McCracken (Qld T34 100m/800m) Deon Kenzie (Tas, T38 1500m) and James Turner delivered outstanding results in their chosen Paralympic events. Those four young athletes with an average age of less than 19 combined took home 2 gold, 4 silver and 2 bronze medals.
READ: Australian Rio Paralympic Wrap
And then there are our junior athletes, such as Kurtis Marschall (SA) who was also in Rio, won silver in the men’s pole vault at the IAAF World Under 20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
Fellow World Under 20 athletes Kirsty Williams (Qld, discus) and Alex Hulley (NSW, hammer throw) also won silver, while Darcy Roper (Qld) took bronze in the long jump. The Australian junior squad also delivered a further seven top-eight performances to ensure their position among the top-ten nations on the IAAF Placing Table.
In other 2016 milestones, Jack Hale (Tas) broke the Australian U20 record in a pre-departure camp before Bydgoszcz.
READ: Four medal haul for Australia at Bydgoszcz2016
With the ground-breaking Nitro Athletics set to launch in February 2017, athletics in Australia is set to take a great leap forward into an exciting future. With nine-time Olympic Champion Usain Bolt (JAM) headlining the series, Nitro Athletics and 2017 can be heralded as the start of a new era of athletics in Australia.
Bring it on.
Other highlights from 2016 included Patrick Tiernan’s NCAA Cross Country victory and 10,000m Australian Championship at Zatopek, Australian record holder Mitchell Watt announcing his retirement, Jared Tallent winning silver at the Rome World Race Walking Team Championships along with two team medals at the same competition, Birkinhead going big in Hobart as Hodgetts betters own world record, Perth welcoming the World Masters Championships, Samuels, Lapierre being crowned 2015 athletes of the year, Lapierre striking gold at the Australian Athletics Championships, Mitchell's undefeated season capped off with Rio berth, Cedric Dubler delivers decathlon dream at Nationals, Luke Mathews impresses at the Melbourne IAAF World Challenge, Usain Bolt launching Nitro Athletics in Melbourne and the revealing of the Nitro Athletics Competition Concept.