• REUTERS

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Australia’s success in Olympic track and field quite literally slowed to a walk at the Rio Games but hopes are high for a rebound in Tokyo with a raft of elite women leading the charge.

Australia’s athletics championships wrapped up in Sydney this week with a slew of Olympic qualifying marks capping an encouraging domestic season.

Among the standout performers was high jumper Nicola McDermott, who cleared 2.00 meters to eclipse Eleanor Patterson’s national record (1.99) in an event won in Rio de Janeiro with a leap of 1.97.

Middle distance runner Linden Hall became the first Australian woman to break the four-minute mark in the 1,500 meters in Melbourne earlier this month, grabbing a time of 3 minutes and 59.67 seconds.

Other Australian medal threats include javelin world champion Kelsey-Lee Barber and pole vaulter Nina Kennedy, who claimed the national record of 4.82 meters in Sydney last month.

The performances have given Australian athletics confidence there will be an improvement on the modest return from 2016 in Brazil, where the team managed only a pair of men’s walking medals, the 50 km silver for Jared Tallent and 20 km bronze for Dane Bird-Smith.

“We don’t put a specific figure on our goals but we do have a number of athletes who are medal capable,” Athletics Australia’s high performance chief Andrew Faichney told Reuters.

“On the women’s side we’ve just got a really strong group of athletes. We’ve pretty much got every single track event qualified for the women and many of the field events.

“We’ll still have a reasonably strong men’s program but the women have been remarkable.”

Australia will be looking for new heroes in the wake of the retirements of former Olympic hurdles champion Sally Pearson and Tallent.

Pearson, who claimed 100 hurdles gold in London and silver in Beijing, hung up her spikes in 2019, while Tallent bowed out last month as Australia’s most successful Olympic male track athlete with four medals across three games.

Compared to Australia’s 59-strong athletics team for the 2016 Games, Faichney expects up to 70 athletes to qualify for Tokyo, no small feat given the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia’s closed borders and travel restrictions meant many athletes eschewed the logistical challenge of competing abroad.

But the country’s relative success in containing COVID-19 has been a blessing for domestic-based athletes, who have been able to train and travel freely as overseas rivals continue to battle lockdowns.

Athletics Australia will stage more meet in Queensland state in June to give more athletes the chance to post Olympic qualifying marks, including those who will miss running at the world relay championships in Poland next week.

“If you look at the domestic season, the athletes and coaches have used the last 12 months well to prepare themselves and I think that was the basis of such strong national championships,” said Faichney.

“I think for us to have comparative freedom here has actually done us really well in performance.”

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