If we cast our gaze past Robyn van Nuys — Australia’s great hope in the Beijing Games’ first final tomorrow, the women’s 10-metre air rifle — we can see the usual shaft of golden light beaming out from the swimming pool, velodrome, hockey stadium, rowing course and clay-target shooting range. In terms of Australian Olympic success, those venues remain our dependable five-ring circus, our fields of dreams. Elsewhere, a certain silvery gleam will hover above the equestrian centre, sailing course and basketball court.

But beyond that, the outlook is pretty grim, especially the view towards the athletics track. Out there in the main stadium, on the eight-lane speedway, Australia’s chances appear as bleak as Beijing’s sootiest smog cloud.

For some reason, despite a rich and proud record in just about every other field of sporting endeavour, athletics is one thing we just can’t seem to get a handle on. We’ve regularly produced world champions in sports as diverse as squash and surfing, billiards and boxing, motoGP and mountain bike riding. But aths? Nup, no dice. We’re as slow as a wet week. When it comes to the Olympic motto, we’ve come to grips with the altius and fortius bit, but remain completely foxed by the citius part.

As a result, the Australian track-and-field team is under pressure to perform at these Olympics like never before.

AOC chief John Coates has already done his regular Oliver impersonation at a Beijing press conference last week. Out came the begging bowl and the pitiful look, as he pleaded to the powers-that-be back in Canberra for more funding: “Please, sirs, I want some more.”

Well, the athletes whose job it is to sprint, hurdle, jog and walk will want to perform a damn sight better than they have in the last few Olympics before the Australian Sports Commission, and the man in the street, feels like dipping further into their pockets to fund their barren training program.

Since the modern Games started in 1896, Australia has produced just 12 Olympic champions in athletics, and that includes a women’s relay team in 1956. We’ve won 18 gold medals but, if you take out the likes of serial winners Shirley Strickland and Betty Cuthbert, you’re looking at just 12 athletes — from Flack to Freeman — who’ve won events. Given this is the XXIX Olympiad, that means Australia has produced a track gold medallist roughly once every 10 years.

The last to breast the tape was Cathy Freeman, as if anyone’s ever forgotten, in the 400 metres in Sydney. Before that, Debbie Flintoff-King took the 400m hurdles crown in Seoul in 1988 — by 0.01 seconds — and, before that, Glynis Nunn won the first staging of the heptathlon at Los Angeles in 1984.

Clearly, athletics is a tough gig. It’s not like boutique sports such as hockey or archery or fencing — or even swimming — which not everyone in the Olympic family participates in. Athletics is a true global sport. Everybody runs. All you need is a pair of shoes and you’re off. Sometimes, as in the case of Abebe Bikila, you don’t even need the shoes, as he showed in winning the Olympic marathon in Rome in bare feet.

Still, the Australian track and field team of 41 will arrive in Beijing next week with some expectation. Sally McClellan, the pint-sized pixie from Queensland, recently broke the Australian record in the 100m hurdles, rocketing her ranking into the world’s top eight. Along with Luke Adams in the 20-kilometre walk and the men’s 4 x 400m relay team, surprise silver medallists in Athens, she shapes as some sort of medal chance.

But the pick of the bunch is clearly Craig Mottram. Like Cadel Evans in the Tour de France who fought a lone battle against the CSC team, Mottram will be one out against the Kenyans and Ethiopians in the 5000 metres. But he’s tough and is confident of giving a good account of himself.

If – and whisper this ever-so-quietly — the Victorian manages to win on Saturday fortnight, it would truly be a victory for the ages. And in terms of that long-awaited renaissance in Australian athletics, it might indeed prove the great leap forward.

Peter Fray

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