Steve Stannard: Secret of our running resurgence

By Professor Steve Stannard

Nick Willis' bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014 was an exceptional case in otherwise lean times for New Zealand running. Photo / Greg Bowker
Nick Willis' bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014 was an exceptional case in otherwise lean times for New Zealand running. Photo / Greg Bowker

• Professor Steve Stannard is Professor of exercise physiology at Massey University

The selection of three of our athletes in the 1500m men's running race for Rio is a reminder of New Zealand's rich history in middle distance running. In the past century, for a minuscule country like ours to have won the event 15 per cent of the time is truly remarkable, especially because that doesn't even count those who appeared a step or two down the dais.

More recently, aside from outliers like Nick Willis and Lorraine Moller, the years have been lean for New Zealand athletics in running events. Numerous explanations have been bandied around by coaches, athletes and social scientists. These include a general shift in participation towards non-traditional sports, a less fit school-age population (perhaps to do with increased urbanisation and associated reduction in opportunities for spontaneous physical activity), and difficulty in finding skilled volunteers to organise club-based activities vital to identifying and nurturing talent.

Others lament the abandonment of old-school Lydiard-style coaching of our elite athletes, replaced by an army of strength and conditioning experts and sport scientists. While there is some truth to the latter, shown by our success in power and strength-based sports, there are other more sinister reasons for our dearth of success in endurance running.

The golden age of New Zealand middle distance running began in the late 1950s, when Arthur Lydiard's athletes and his proteges ran and coached to unparalleled success in distances from 800m to the marathon.

Success breeds success and the achievements of Walker, Quax, and Dixon in the '70s owes much to the examples set by Halberg, Snell, and Magee 10-15 years earlier.

If you were to ask the crop of rowers going to Rio, I'd wager that seeing Rob Wadell or the Evers-Swindell sisters winning gold played an important part in piquing their interest in rowing and their subsequent success in the sport. Stay tuned for a bunch of wannabe Eddie Dawkins cyclists over the next four years.

It's pretty hard then, when you haven't seen success for a while, to reignite interest in a sporting discipline such as middle distance running, where there are few role models. So why all of a sudden do we have three men in the 1500m event after all these years?

Well, it's probably the same reason the big cycling events are no longer being won by one loud-mouthed American.

The domination of middle and long-distance running by the Africans is showing cracks. The recent arrest in Spain of Jama Aden (coach of the world 1500m champion Genzebe Dibaba and many other Rio-bound runners) for possession of EPO casts doubt on the idea that the African success of the past 20 years is solely based on training barefoot on the African highlands.

Banning the Russian track and field team from the Games is a first step in the right direction for world athletics. Maybe removing the African advantage of geographical isolation from the competition drug testing regime should be the next. Perhaps then we will begin to see a level playing field once more and be able to breed some success in middle distance running in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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