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Previews13 Feb 2024

Youth vs establishment in Melbourne


Nicola Olyslagers in action in the high jump (© Getty Images)

The early part of Australia’s pre-Paris Olympics year has been highlighted by a number of emerging young athletes seemingly intent on upending the established order. That theme will continue at the Maurie Plant Meet – the first World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting of 2024 – in Melbourne on Thursday (15).

Teenage sprint star Torrie Lewis annexed the national 100m record in Canberra as January drew to a close; at the same meeting, middle-distance talent Peyton Craig stunned a strong field with a breakthrough win over 800m.

The wave building in the nation’s capital gained further momentum at Adelaide’s Continental Tour meeting on 10 February. Craig won again in the men’s 800m, this time going to 1:45.41 in defeating New Zealand’s James Preston. Emerging star Cameron Myers, still only 17 and one of those behind Craig in Canberra, turned to his favoured 1500m distance and won in 3:34.55.

Another 18-year-old, Claudia Hollingsworth ran a commanding last lap to win the women’s 1500m, slashing seconds from her previous best with a 4:04.45. Lewis then followed up her 100m breakthrough with a 200m win in 23.05.

All of those young talents – and more – are on the start lists for Melbourne. The status of the meeting has been upgraded from Bronze to Gold and the quality of the opposition has risen commensurately. As all but the most prodigious of young talents eventually experience the climb to the top gets steeper by the rung.

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Consider the John Landy Mile in which Myers and Craig will face 2022 world 1500m champion Jake Wightman, Australian record-holder Stewart McSweyn and New Zealand’s Samuel Tanner in one of the highlight events. Myers, at least, has experience at this level, having finished third to Ollie Hoare and Tanner in last year’s edition.

Wightman has had just one race back after a long 2023 injury break, a 3:34.06 indoor 1500m in Boston. McSweyn is having his first race for 2024. But you can bet both will be sharp and, no doubt, have either noted what Myers and Craig have done or had their attention drawn to it.

Lewis, having established an edge over her domestic rivals, steps into a 100m field with one outstanding addition. New Zealand’s Zoe Hobbs set the Oceania record with her 10.96 in La Chaux-de-Fonds last year. On the area all-time list, Hobbs owns no fewer than 11 performances as fast as, or faster, than Lewis’s 11.10. If conditions are good and Lewis can handle the further step up in competition, she could even become Australia’s first woman under 11 seconds.

Hollingsworth was outstanding in Adelaide. She has a personal best of 2:01.60, but that could be set for revision in an 800m that bristles with talent. Abbey Caldwell won impressively in Adelaide and will start favourite in Melbourne in a field bristling with talent. Leading the way is Australian record-holder Catriona Bisset, strangely off-key in Adelaide, Bendere Oboya, Linden Hall, Georgia Griffith and Brooke Feldmeier of the US.

Returning to the 800m, the ’older’ men of the event – James Preston, Jack Lunn, national record-holder Joe Deng and World Championships representative Riley McGown – will appreciate Craig’s absence as they battle out what looks to be a tight race.

Olyslagers and Denny lead the way on the field

As you might expect, an Olympic silver and world championships bronze medallist and a Diamond League champion stand out among the field event competitors. Whereas Nicola Olyslagers’ only competitor appears to be the high jump crossbar, however, Matt Denny will need to produce something close to his best in the discus.

Olyslagers has jumped just once this year, an equal Oceania and Australian record of 2.03m. She is likely to be the only jumper attempting heights above 1.90m in Melbourne. The question is: how high can she go?

Denny, on the other hand, could be forgiven if he has a picture of New Zealand’s Connor Bell on the wall at home, with the Kiwi thrower at the centre of a target. For the second year in a row, Bell disrupted Denny’s hopes of a wining start to his campaign. Last year he upstaged the Australian in the Melbourne discus, held the previous day in Geelong. He did it again in Adelaide, producing a 65.93m national record to edge Denny’s best of 65.74m. Denny had four throws beyond 65 metres to Bell’s one, but that one was the farthest of the competition.

Denny will be desperate to reverse that result in Melbourne, but the pair of them must look out for Britain’s Nick Percy (63.09m in Adelaide) and Lawrence Okoye (61.93m).

The women’s javelin also looks strong with two-time world champion Kelsey-Lee Barber, Oceania record-holder Kathryn Mitchell, New Zealand record-holder Tori Peeters and Japan’s 2022 world finalist Sae Takemoto.

Zhoya heads hurdles fields

Sasha Zhoya could have run for Australia or France. He chose France, but still spends significant time in Australia during the summer. That includes headlining the field in the 110m hurdles.

Tayleb Willis, a year younger than Zhoya, is another of Australia’s rising talents, but he, along with Jacob McCorry, Nick Andrews and the rest of the field is likely to be chasing the flying Frenchman.

The women’s sprint hurdles, by contrast, is loaded with contenders. There’s Olympic semi-finalist Liz Clay coming in off a 100m PB and a just-windy 12.91 hurdles, Michelle Jenneke, Hannah Jones, Michelle Harrison from Canada and the USA’s Queen Claye. Japan’s Mako Fukube (12.73) and Yumi Tanaka (12.89) should also be right in the race.

Elsewhere, Rohan Browning resumes his jousting with the 10-second barrier in the men’s 100m. Japan’s Ryota Yamagata and Joshua Azzopardi will likely figure in the finish.

Fans of longer distances – of which Melbourne has many – will have two 5000m races to savour. The seemingly stronger women’s race features marathon standouts Genevieve Gregson, Izzy Batt-Doyle and Eloise Wellings up against African U20 3000m record-holder Aynadis Mebratu, Rose Davies and Leanne Pompeani. Zatopek Ten champion Jack Rayner is fastest on the men’s startlist.

Will the youth revolution roll on? Or will the establishment fight back? Let’s hope for a balance of both.

Len Johnson for World Athletics