Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dispatches From Down Under: Athletics In Melbourne

Matt Tegenkamp, Chris Solinsky, Tim Nelson and Andrew Bumbalough have journeyed to Australia for a fast, uber-competitive early season 5000m in Melbourne, Thursday March 3rd.  During this week, we’re sharing some reports from half a world away…

Since, we’re scarcely more than a day away from what has to be the biggest season-opener in recent athletics memory, here’s a quick run-down of everything you might want to know about Melbourne, the city’s history in athletics, and what we have to look forward to on Thursday:

At almost three million residents, Melbourne is Australia’s second-largest city (behind Sydney), is located on the southern coast, and hosted the Olympics in 1956; right off the bat, it should be no surprise that Melbourne is home to a terrific athletics history.

At the ’56 Games, Australian Betty Cuthbert won three gold medals in the sprints (100, 200 & 4×100) to the delight of her country, and her compatriot Shirley Strickland added another in the 80-metre hurdles. (It was at this Olympics, too, that the tradition of the Closing Ceremonies first began.)

However, the Olympic Park Stadium where Thursday’s meet will be held, was actually “only” the Olympic practice facility… but that doesn’t mean it’s short on historical significance.  Australians have turned in thirteen world record performances on the grounds, including runs by such legends as Herb Elliott and Ron Clarke, who himself clocked four of the thirteen record-breakers. And Clarke’s rise intersected with the brilliance of the great John Landy — quite literally, in fact.  At the 1956 Australian Championships, Landy hurdled a fallen Clarke in the midst of the Mile, then paused to help the youngster to his feet, before proceeding to victory.  That moment, which occurred at the Stadium, is still considered one of the most memorable in all of Australia’s sporting history.

Even as the track circuit became increasingly more focused on European meets, fast times continue to be found in Melbourne.  At last year’s edition of the Melbourne Track Classic — which reportedly has drawn as many as 10,000 spectators to the 11,000-seat venue – Britain’s Andy Baddeley won the 5000m in 13:20.85 beating a mostly Australian field. Over the years, a slew of sub-13:30 performances have been clocked at the Olympic Park Stadium but, of course, most in Thursday’s field will be hoping to run a bit faster, with the World Championships “A” standard of 13:20.00 in their sights. And a strong field it is: World Champion and American Record Holder Bernard Lagat (12:54), Bekele-beater Isaac Songok (12:48),  Australian Record Holder Craig Mottram (12:55), Australian 10,000m Record Holder Collis Birmingham (27:29 / 13:11), David McNeill, (13:25), Ben St. Lawrence (13:25), and Brandon Bethke (13:27) are all slated to start, among others.

Solinsky, Tegenkamp, Nelson, and Bumbalough might draw confidence from the fact that KIMbia men have competed well and run fast here in the past. One, in fact, has run “fastest”: set in 1999, the meet record of 13:11.11 is held by none other than KIMbia’s Luke Kipkosgei.

Sources for the above include the Athletics Australia website, the Olympic Park Stadium website, austadiums.com, IAAF.org, and Wikipedia.  Melbourne photo from Tim Nelson; map of Australia via the US State Department website; Olympic Park animation via Google Earth.

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