Australia and Olympic Athletics
Edwin Flack was a trailblazer - the first Australian to compete at the Olympic Games, and first to win. In 1896 he resolved to attend the Athens Games, the first of the modern Olympics. He was Australia’s only participant and won the 800 metres and 1500 metres – and a bronze in doubles tennis. By the end of the Games he possessed heroic status, and was followed in the streets by crowds who dubbed him ‘The Lion of Athens’.
Since 1896 and Flack’s two gold medals, Australia’s male Olympic champions have been Anthony “Nick” Winter (triple jump - Paris 1924), John Winter (high jump - London 1948), Herb Elliott (1500m - Rome 1960), Ralph Doubell (800m - Mexico City 1968) and Steve Hooker (pole vault - Beijing 2008). The two Winters were not related.
Australian women first competed at Amsterdam in 1928 with Edith Robinson competing in the 100m and 800m. The first gold medals came at Helsinki 1952 with Marjorie Jackson winning the 100m and 200m and Shirley Strickland the 80m hurdles.
Following the dropped baton in 1952 there was no mishap in Melbourne 1956 with Strickland, Betty Cuthbert, Fleur Mellor and Norma Croker shattering the world record on their way to the gold medal. Melbourne saw Australia win all the women’s track events with Cuthbert winning the 100m and 200m and Strickland winning the 80m hurdles, becoming the first woman to successfully defend an Olympic athletics title. At the close of her career, Strickland had won seven Olympic medals (3 gold, 1 silver, 3 bronze) which was a record for female athletics for many years.
Cuthbert won the inaugural women’s 400 metres at Tokyo 1964. Maureen Caird and Pam Kilborn finished first and second in the 80m hurdles at Mexico City in 1968. Raelene Boyle won three silver medals in the sprints at Mexico City and Munich in 1972. Glynis Nunn won the first staging of the heptathlon (previously the pentathlon) at Los Angeles 1984 and Debbie Flintoff-King stopped the nation with her ever-so-narrow win in the 400m hurdles at Seoul 1988.
Cathy Freeman, with the hopes of the whole country behind her, emphatically won the 400 metres at Sydney in 2000. Tatiana Grigorieva (pole vault) and Jai Taurima (long jump) both took home silver in front of a home crowd.
Athens in 2004 saw bronze medals going to Nathan Deakes and Jane Saville in the men's and women's 20km walks respectively. These medals were the first by Australian walkers at the Olympic since Noel Freeman's silver in the 20km event in Rome. The men's 4 x 400 metres relay team's unexpected silver medal emulated the performance of the quartet led by Kevan Gosper at Melbourne 1956.
Some of Australia's most memorable medals in Beijing were from the sport of athletics. Steve Hooker became an overnight celebrity when he took out gold in the men's pole vault. Hooker's jump of 5.96m was also an Olympic record. Sally McLellan, now Pearson, beat the odds to win silver in the women's hurdles and endurance master of the road Jared Tallent took home silver and bronze for the 50km and 20km road walks.
Four years on, Pearson broke the Olympic record to win gold in the 100m hurdles at the London 2012 Games. In a thrilling race, Pearson edged out Dawn Harper of the United States to become Olympic champion by just 0.02 seconds in a time of 12.35, the third quickest time of her career.
Jared Tallent crossed the line for the 50km walk in the silver medal position, as he did in Beijing, and rightfully so he was awarded the gold medal 1460 days later in Melbourne after the Russian was proven to be doping at the Games. He became the Olympic record holder and only the seventh Australian men's Olympic champion in athletics.
Mitchell Watt claimed silver in the men’s long jump at London after producing a leap of 8.16 metres with his final jump to finish second behind Great Britain's Greg Rutherford. While 18-year-old Steve Solomon became the first Australian to make the men’s 400m final since the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Australia’s 60-strong athletics team at Rio 2016 delivered two medals and a further seven top-eight performances. There were 28 athletes who placed in the top-16, compared to the 16 athletes four years ago.
Jared Tallent won sliver in the men’s 50km walk to make him the most successful Australian male track and field athlete in Olympic history, with his trophy cabinet boasting one gold, one silver and two bronze medals. Dane Bird-Smith won bronze in the men’s 20km walk at his Olympic debut.
In winning the triple jump (then known as hop, step and jump) at Athens in 1896, James Connolly from the United States became the first Olympic champion in over 1500 years.
The first events for women were not held until the 1928 Games in Amsterdam when the 100m, 4x100m relay, 800m, high jump and discus were contested. With the inclusion of the women’s 3000m steeplechase at Beijing 2008, the number of athletics events for women reached 23, just one less than the men with the 50km walk the additional event.
Paarvo Nurmi of Finland and American Carl Lewis have each won nine athletics gold medals. Nurmi won his Olympics titles in six different events from Antwerp 1920 through to Amsterdam 1928. Two of his gold medals at Paris 1924, in the 1500 metres and 5000 metres, were won less than two hours apart. Nurmi also won three silver medals. Lewis won his Olympic titles in four different events from Los Angeles 1984 through to Atlanta 1996, including four consecutive long jump gold medals. The only other athlete to win the same event four times in succession was American Al Oerter in the discus from Melbourne 1956 through to Mexico City 1968. Ray Ewry also of the United States won eight gold medals in the standing jumping events from Paris 1900 through to London 1908.
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt joined the record books at Rio 2016 to also have nine athletics gold medals to his name. Regarded as the fastest human ever timed, he is the first man to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records since fully automatic time became mandatory. Bolt first gained worldwide popularity for his double sprint victory at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in world record times. He has won the 100m, 200m and 4×100m relay at three consecutive Olympic Games, and is an 11-time World Champion.