Nationals vital for track and field future

ATHLETICS Australia will stage its 92nd national championships in Melbourne this week from Thursday to Saturday.

They were actually first staged in 1891 but for a while were held only every two years and the World Wars knocked out a few more editions.

But perhaps none have been as important for the future of track and field in this country than the 2014 version.

Big changes are occurring in the sport at national and international level and unless an appropriate response is made for those governing the world's oldest sport in Australia, then this may be the last nationals as the diehards have come to know them.

Being a Commonwealth Games year, there is the normal improvement in depth of performance at the top end.

There are big fields in most events for, as has become the tradition, more athletes believe they can make the national team for a Commonwealth Games.

Certainly with no entry standards imposed by an international governing body such as occurs with the Olympics and world championships, there is greater flexibility for Commonwealth Games Associations and national federations, in athletics in particular, to come up with broader selection policies.

This is important because it gives a reason for the athletes at the level below the highest international echelon a reason to remain in the sport and to train hard.

In turn their presence is critical for the juniors and the pathway talent behind them to have someone to compete against domestically as they bloom.

Australia may well send as many as 100 competitors in athletics to this year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, whereas in each of the other three years in an Olympic cycle, the number usually averages half that.

It's a situation that fits well with the Friendly Games moniker of the Commonwealth Games but is also justified in terms of the competitiveness of the athletes in the various events.

Sadly this year there will be six fewer in the team as the Scottish organisers in their wisdom have determined that there should not be any walking events on the program, one of the reasons provided being that Australia is too dominant in both the men's and women's race. It's true and outrageous at the same time.

But in 2014 this otherwise hopeful situation provides only temporary aberration from the likely patterns that will emerge over the coming years.

The dark pall of the Australian Sports Commission's Winning Edge philosophy hangs over the future of all sport in this country but in particular those with traditionally high participation rates at national level such as athletics and swimming.

Canberra's determination to spend a large proportion of the sport budget on likely winners at the Olympics and world championships and for programs to be adjusted accordingly will eventually discourage participation in domestic competition and reduce national championships to shadows of their former selves.

Athletics Australia's state and territory associations have asked the national body for pow-wow on the future of domestic competition and international team opportunities for those below the level covered by Winning Edge.

The mid-April gathering will be crucial for the future but the anticipated success of this week's nationals and the quality of performance there will be a powerful message in ensuring that what has been good for so long should be preserved so that in 2022 the event's centenary will be something worth hanging around for.

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