For the first time in quite a few years I wasn’t at the nationals. Not by choice: the situation was imposed on me, first by a scheduled trekking trip to Nepal, then by the flaring up of a back condition which forced the cancellation of the former and precluded travelling to the latter. Unable to reach either the Himalayas or Brisbane, I was instead restricted to watching the championships from the couch.
Back in 2012, having covered the previous five Olympics as a journalist, I didn’t travel to London for that year’s Olympics. Instead, I made do with the television coverage. Much to my delight, this proved to be (almost) as good as being there, with the multi-channel coverage offering the ability to skip between track, road and field events as nimbly as a triple jumper (and with a far closer view).
Tick one big plus for couch spectating. The 2023 national championships? Well, let’s just say that in terms of vicarious presence at a sporting event they redressed the balance.
Just why I can’t quite say. But between juggling the livestream with the live results a lot went missing. The stream and the results were living separate lives whereas at the Brisbane Track Classic just a few days earlier they were happily co-habiting. It was difficult to follow heats and qualifying rounds when the fastest losers were frustratingly slow in coming through.
Nor did the stream cover the full day’s program, which again made keeping up with progress more difficult.
Not that you necessarily watch everything all day every day if you’re at the championships. But it’s your own choice what you watch and what you skip and there is always someone to fill you in with what you’ve missed. Indeed, that’s part of the beauty of a nationals. You walk around, bump into people, have conversations, glean some insights.
In Sydney a couple of years back I stood next to Craig Hilliard watching the women’s high jump. Craig in turn was standing next to Matt Horsnell as we all three watched Craig’s athlete, Nicola McDermott then, Nicola Olyslagers and an Olympic silver medallist now, become the first Australian woman to clear two metres in the high jump.
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From there, I moved to the back straight where I was standing alongside Dick Telford as Jye Edwards out-ran Stewie McSweyn in the 1500 metres.
“Jazz is the space between the notes,” legendary jazz man Miles Davis is one of many reputedly to have observed. The nationals, in their turn, are as often about the space between the events as the events themselves.
All that aside, however, it was a pretty good nationals, with some imaginative scheduling concentrating the highlight events into the Saturday and Sunday programs.
Saturday’s so-called ‘hour of power’ packed in both men’s and women’s 100, 400 and 1500 finals while the women’s pole vault was in progress on the field, the women’s javelin commenced at the end of the hour and the men’s high jump followed just after. The most demanding of spectators could not find much to quibble about with that selection.
Sunday’s equivalent was bracketed by the two long jump finals and contained both 800s, both sprint hurdles and the commencement of the women’s high jump. Again, action anywhere you looked.
Rohan Browning was adjudged the Betty Cuthbert medallist for his 100 victory in 10.02 seconds, a whisker outside the 10-second barrier (maybe that should be two whiskers, but what’s a whisker between friends).
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The Cuthbert medal is awarded to what is judged by a panel to be the best single performance of the championships. I guess that precludes doubles – Jessica Hulls’ 1500-5000, Torrie Lewis’s 100-200 and Callum Davies’ 1500-5000 – in favour of considering each championships win on individual merit.
Browning’s 10.02 was a worthy winner, too. There is something immediately striking about seeing a sprint title won by two metres and with a fastest-by-an-Australian-in-Australia performance.
A number of other performances could just as easily have taken the accolade. In her 1500 victory, Hulls beat the strongest field of the championships – she and Linden Hall Tokyo Olympic finalists, she and Georgia Griffith world championships finalists last year. Abbey Caldwell was the defending champion and the Commonwealth Games bronze medallist.
Catriona Bisset was just as authoritative in winning the 800 in a championship record 1:58.32. Joel Baden produced a last-chance clearance at 2.32 metres to deny Brandon Starc in the men’s high jump, having also done the same thing at 2.29 to stay in the contest. Mackenzie Little defeated two-time world champion and Olympic bronze medallist Kelsey-Lee Barber in the javelin.
Any one of these could also have been the Cuthbert medallist which, after the performances across the board in Tokyo and Eugene in the past two years, is further confirmation of the depth in the sport.
Four days couch spectating had its moments, that’s for sure. Thankfully, the good ones comfortably outnumbered the bad.