Inside Athletics

Diversion from the well-worn path sees new future for Australian athletics

Three months ago Australian athletics was at crossroads.

With controversies abundant in the lead up to the London Olympics, and the team’s performance yielding only half of Athletics Australia’s coveted six medals, there were serious decision that needed to be made about the sport’s future.

Athletics Australia has to be congratulated on the consultation they took prior to the worthwhile changes they have put in place: to adopt a philosophy of selecting teams of maximum size, and to replace Eric Hollingsworth as the head of the high performance department in a restructure.

Make no mistake about it, Athletics Australia’s selection policy for next year’s world championships is a paradigm shift for the organisation. It’s one that has the ability to rejuvenate a domestic season that has been on the decline for a decade and reinstates the Australian championships as the pinnacle of the season: win the nationals, and achieve a B-qualifier before the end of the IAAF selection period, and one is automatically in the team.

Selectors will go from deciding if Australia should be represented in an event, to selecting which athletes will fill the remaining places in an event.

The accompanying restructure of the high performance department was an inevitable consequence of its failure to improve the team’s Olympic performance from Beijing, with one less medal won for a total of three medals, and Australia dropping to 13th on the points table as a result of the number of top 8 finishes falling from 8 to 6.

Although in announcing the restructure Athletics Australia President Rob Fildes was at pains to state that the employment of a High Performance Director should not be seen as a demotion for Eric Hollingsworth, who is now the Head Coach and will report to the new position, it’s hard to see it any differently. This is especially so in light of the new selection philosophy and Hollingsworth’s previous criticism of such approaches. The Age’s Michael Gleeson wrote after the Olympics that: Hollingsworth said Team GB provided the 'clear example' for Australia, which needed to be more ruthless if it wanted to improve performance. He pointed to the problem of the AOC wanting to take the biggest team possible every Olympics, a philosophy which he said ran counter to elite performance.

It would have been untenable for the head of the high performance department to publicly hold a view that is diametrically opposed to their organisation’s Board, and it will be interesting to see how well Hollingsworth adapts to the philosophy over the remaining two years of his contract as Head Coach.

Back in June I wrote that athletics is about athletes, and the best part about the about the changes that have occurred is that the focus of athletics lovers’ attention can now be united and squarely focused on the athletes. The athletes are empowered in knowing that in almost all cases that their selection destiny is in their own hands, and the sport will celebrate every qualifying performance for what they are: an indication that the athlete is world class, and at a minimum, if a qualified athlete is the best in their event, that they will represent Australia.