By Len Johnson
Bob Dylan may have told us in his song It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) that “the rules of the road have been lodged” but I’m pretty certain they were broken one day in February earlier this year on our way to Bathurst for the world cross-country championships.
With typical Dylan ambiguity, I’m thinking it was in Young. But it could have been Cootamundra. In any case it was on the way up the aptly-named Olympic Highway – aptly because it was the route the Olympic Torch relay followed from Cairns down to Melbourne for the 1956 Olympic Games.
Olympic Highway or not, we certainly weren’t expecting to bump into the Australian team – or the significant portion of it which travelled from, or via, Melbourne – as we sat down in the main street on a coffee break. We weren’t exactly sure it was the team at first, but Matthew Ramsden’s height and lanky build are a bit of a giveaway.
I’ve bumped into my fair share of Australian athletes and teams in strange places – mostly
airport departure lounges or exotic five-star hotel lobbies – over the years, but a coffee shop in not-quite-outback-but-definitely-country town Young takes the cake.
We’re beginning this look at 2023 with the world cross-country because . . . well. Because it is the world cross-country, it was being staged in Australia and it is the biggest international event staged here since the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games (due respect to the 2001 IAAF Grand Prix final and the Melbourne 2006 and Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Europe largely does not concern itself overmuch with cross-country anymore, despite its
own overblown championships and the surviving if not thriving races making up most of the World Athletics cross-country tour. So the absence of many European nations was
continuation of a disturbing trend even though some dressed it up as due to the distance,
the time change and the change of seasons.
But Africa was there, Oceania and Asia, too, and the US which, along with Australia, is a
constant supporter of the world event. And didn’t Bathurst turn on a show. A memorable
physical blow-up in the senior women’s race as Letesenbet Gidey’s collapse allowed
Beatrice Chebet to race through to victory and an atmospheric blow-up to end the men’s
race with Jacob Kiplimo crossing the line clearly ahead of any rival but with the mother of all storms right on his heels.
The championships had started with Ollie Hoare, Jess Hull, Stewie McSweyn and Abbey
Caldwell taking a bronze medal for Australia in the mixed relay. We thought that was as
much drama as we’d get on the day. Little did we know!
The world cross-country was one bookend of 2023, the world championships in Budapest –
and Diamond League final in Oregon soon afterwards – the other.
And what a bookend it was. Six medals – one gold, two silver, three bronze – the best by an Australian Olympic or world championships team since Mexico City in 1968. For comparison, in Budapest Nina Kennedy shared the gold medal in the pole vault with Katie Moon of the USA, Jemima Montag in the women’s 20km walk and Eleanor Patterson in the high jump took silver, Nicola Olyslagers in the high jump, Mackenzie Little in the javelin and Kurtis Marschall in the pole vault took bronze medals.
Budapest also brought another memorable personal moment. For the avoidance of doubt,
there’s no such thing as a bad seat at a world championships, but ours, right on the crown of the bend into the home straight, were not best in house either. Except for the women’s pole vault, that is, which we watched in spellbound happiness from 15 metres away. That’s as close as I’ve been to an in-stadium event since sitting in the team seats to watch Mike
Powell and Carl Lewis from a similar distance in the long jump in Tokyo in 1991. Kennedy’s
competition was better; this time an Australian won the gold.
Matt Denny was the unlucky man in Budapest, finishing fourth, just as he had in the Tokyo
Olympics. No sooner had we stopped with the “poor Matt” stuff than he came out and won
the Diamond League final in Eugene, beating the world championships gold and silver
medallists, Daniel Stahl and Kristjan Ceh in doing so.
Up close personally in Bathurst and Budapest, with the many diversions and distractions of
major meetings and big-city marathons followed vicariously on mainstream and livestream in between, 2023 was a memorable year in athletics.