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 at 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.
Australia’s women first competed in 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 in Mexico City in 1968. Raelene Boyle won three silver medals in the sprints in 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 in 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 in 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.
Mitchell Watt claimed silver in the men’s long jump after producing a leap of 8.16 metres with his final jump to finish second behind Great Britain's Greg Rutherford. Jared Tallent matched his silver medal finish from Beijing in the men’s 50km road walk, equalling the record for most Olympic medals won by an Australian male track and field athlete with three.
In promising signs for Rio 2016, 18-year-old Steve Solomon became the first Australian to make the men’s 400m final since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, while Australia’s 4x100m men’s relay team equalled the national record (38.17) in qualifying and finished seventh in the final.