Feature Sydney, Australia

Australia's big team bids to rediscover its golden touch in Eugene

Matthew Denny in the boys' Discus Throw at the IAAF World Youth Championships 2013  (Getty Images)Matthew Denny in the boys' Discus Throw at the IAAF World Youth Championships 2013 (Getty Images) © Copyright

Australia has competed in every IAAF World Junior Championships since the inaugural event in Athens in 1986 but the 15th edition of the championships, in Eugene this coming July, is expected to see the biggest-ever Australian team travelling to contest the titles.

This follows the biggest-ever Australian Junior Championships staged in Sydney’s Olympic Park Athletics Centre on 12-16 March, when more than 2000 athletes competed across the five days, in under-14, 15, 16, 17 18 and 20 age groups.

Only the all-important under-20 group were competing for spots in the team for Eugene, but the overall buzz around the Sydney 2000 Olympic precinct was amazing.

Athletics Australia will announce the full team for Eugene later this week but the final number is highly likely to exceed the 56 who travelled to Barcelona two years ago. The only bigger team was that which contested the home championships in Sydney in 1996.

Australia has won 53 medals at the World Junior Championships, 11 gold, 17 silver and 25 bronze, but the 2014 team will be looking to end a gold-medal drought which extends back to Beijing 2006 when Dani Samuels won the discus and Robbie Crowther the long jump.

Subsequent editions in Bydgoszcz and Moncton produced just one bronze medal each: the women’s 4x400m in 2008, Julian Wruck in the discus in 2010; while Barcelona brought five medals: silver to Nick Hough (110m hurdles), Jake Stein (decathlon) and Liz Parnov (pole vault) and bronze to Steve Solomon (400m) and Damien Birkinhead (shot put).

So, in the manner of those who sought fame and fortune along the US west coast many years, indeed centuries, earlier, it will be ‘Gold, or bust’ for the Oregon14 Australians.

Making the grade

The first criterion for automatic selection was to win the national championship/selection trial and to have achieved the Australian qualifying standard within the period. With the combined events and the two long jumps (which were curtailed by the severe storms which hit Sydney on Saturday evening) yet to come, about 25 athletes reached both goals.

Almost as many again finished second and have the qualifying standard, meaning they will be routine additions to the team.

Finally, athletes who finished behind a non-qualifier but have the standard are expected to be named and relay squads will take the final total to about 60.

Among the names that immediately grab athletics aficionados’ attention is the dual world youth medallist Matt Denny in the discus and hammer throw, who won the gold and bronze respectively in Donetsk last summer. His performances with the under-20 implements make him a genuine medal hope in both events in Eugene.

The middle and long-distance events will be extremely competitive, with Kenyan, Ethiopian and US athletes all looking to figure prominently, but Australia will have one of its strongest components numerically in these events for some time.

Automatic selections include Luke Matthews (800m), Zak Patterson (1500m) and Morgan McDonald (5000m) in men’s events and Georgia Wassall (800m), Anna Laman (1500m) and Kate Spencer (5000m and/or 3000m steeplechase) in the women’s races.

Wassall and Spencer both ran impressively against open competition in the Sydney Track Classic, held after the junior events on the Saturday night.

Wassall clocked 2:01.78 to finish second to Kenya’s reigning world champion Eunice Sum in the 800m while Spencer ran 15:32.29 in finishing fourth in the 5000m behind Moscow silver medallist Mercy Cherono.

The sprints and sprint hurdles will also have close to a full complement, though Joshua Clarke’s first priority is recovery from the hamstring tweak he suffered in winning the 100m in a personal best of 10.34.

Another Joshua, Robinson this time, led the way in the 200m and 400m while Hana Basic (100m), Emily Lawson (200m) and Molly Blakey (400m) all qualified automatically in the women’s events.

Patterson ponders possibilities

High jumper Eleanor Patterson, who equalled the world youth best with 1.96m in December, won that event in Sydney but is expected to prefer the Commonwealth Games if she makes that team through the Australian senior championships in Melbourne on 2-6 April.

Another world youth champion, Mackenzie Little in the javelin, is also unavailable due to study priorities.

Australia has some history of success across all event groups at the championships. The first edition, in Athens in 1986, saw Miles Murphy win the 400m and silvers went to Werner Reiterer and Steve McBain in the discus and 200m. Sudbury two years later saw both Steve Perry individually in the 400m and the men’s 4x400m take silvers.

Plovdiv 1990 introduced a talented generation including Rohan Robinson (gold, 400m hurdles), Cathy Freeman, Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, Kyle Vander-Kuyp (bronze 110m hurdles), Tim Forsyth (silver, high jump), Lisa-Marie Vizaniari (silver, discus) and Jane Saville. The women’s 4x400m also won gold.

Paul Byrnes (800m) and Jagan Hames (high jump) won gold medals at Lisbon 1994, while the home event in 1996 brought just one gold, to Paul Burgess in the pole vault, but nine more medals.

A gold medal to the men’s 4x400m in Annecy in 1998 was followed by a double in the 400m and 400m hurdles to Jana Pittman in Santiago in 2000.

Minor medals only in the next two editions (one to Sally McLellan (now Pearson) in the 100m), before Samuels and Crowther became the most recent Australian champions in Beijing in 2006.

As with many other major athletics nations, the World Junior Championships has a mixed record as a guide to senior success.

Pittman’s two world junior titles match her two senior titles (in Paris in 2003 and Osaka in 2007), Tim Forsyth’s two silvers (albeit losing to a world junior record both times) in the high jump matches his bronze medals at Olympic Games and World Championships level.

Others, like Miles Murphy, Paul Burgess and Paul Byrne, did not quite match their junior success.

Under-achievers at junior level who then excelled as seniors include Freeman (one world junior silver against Olympic gold and silver and two World Championships gold medals), Pearson (junior bronze; Olympic and World gold, Olympic and World silver, World Indoor Championships gold and silver as a senior) and Steve Hooker (fourth juniors; Olympic, World and World indoor gold as a senior).

Len Johnson for the IAAF