New Zealand hope to qualify a quartet of relay teams for the Commonwealth Games in July. Steve Landells takes a look at their chances and why the programme should benefit the nation’s top sprinters.
For a country which prides itself on organisation, good discipline and teamwork it is one of the great mysteries why New Zealand has not enjoyed more success in the relays.
Not since the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games have the Black Singlets sent a relay team to compete at a major senior championship. We have to go back all the way to the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth to find the last podium finish by a New Zealand relay team –(when the women’s quartet won 4x110yards bronze).
Yet future relay success is back on the agenda thanks to Athletics NZ as High Performance Director Scott Goodman has supported a plan to attempt to qualify four relay teams for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow later this year.
A series of camps have been organised and goals set for the respective squads. Should they meet the qualification standards they will have the opportunity to compete at the historic Hampden Park stadium in the famous black vests in July. It is an enticing aspiration for any sprinter worth his salt.
Athletics NZ’s High Performance Campaign and Planning Manager Terry Lomax, who is also coach of the men’s 4x400m squad, insists supporting a relay programme does have great benefits.
“As individual sprinters it is hard to see a New Zealander making an Olympic final in 100m or 200m. The chances of having a finalist in the 400m are slightly better, but still highly unlikely. History has shown that has been the case. Yet making an Olympic final in the relay is attainable. Australia, which has a similar genetic make up to us, has proven that. For our athletes the relays provide the best avenue to reach that level.”
Kerry Hill, coach of the men’s 4x100m squad, echoes Terry’s view and says that purely assessing individual sprint rankings does not necessarily equate to relay success.
He says the USA – historically the world’s No.1 sprint nation – has traditional suffered a spate of relay disqualifications at major championships while other nations have punched above their weight chiefly because of their technical know-how.
“It is interesting that the most consistent finalists in finals (men’s 4x100m) have been countries like Brazil, Poland and Japan and none of these countries are blessed with super-fast sprinters,” explains Kerry. “What they have developed is a nationwide approach to baton changing which is adopted by everybody and so it becomes second nature to the athletes.
Kerry, who has coached, five of New Zealand’s fastest eight 100m men in history including national record holder Gus Nketia and current NZ No.1 Joseph Millar, also does not buy into the theory that there is a paucity of sprinting talent from these islands.
He insists that the basic hardware exists and points to the fact that New Zealand reached the 1993 World Championship semi-finals in both the 4x100m and 4x400m. Meanwhile, four sprinters qualified for the 100m and 200m at the 1996 Atlanta Games. It is just, he explains, that many the fastest Kiwis are failing to fulfil their potential because they are retiring from the sport prematurely.
“If you look at the all-time top 20 (for New Zealand men’s 100m runners) the average age of when they set their PB is 21 years old. The problem is many of our top sprinters retire at 22 or 23. People keep telling us we don’t have any sprinters but we do. They are quitting before they reach their peak.”
Kerry believes a committed relay programme will act as a vital motivational tool for retaining sprinters in the sport for longer and he has already seen many positive signs at the 4x100m training camps.
“The enthusiasm that Scott (Goodman) has injected into the sprinters is absolutely magnificent,” he explains.
Chris Williams, the coach of the women’s 4x400m squad, believes the “internal competition” within the squad engendered by the relay programme is pushing athletes to a higher level.
During a training camp he introduced a timing system using electronic gates set over a series of distance which helped heighten the competitive spirit within the group.
“They can also see the times that each other or running and they can try to beat each other.”
Many factors contribute towards a slick relay team, according to women’s 4x100m coach Paul Lothian. He says the main purpose of the training camps are not only to improve baton changing but work out some of the many nuances of relay running.
“It is getting them to gel as a relay squad,” says Paul, who coached the Niue men’s 4x100m relay team which set a national record at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. “And, it is also a matter of choosing the right members of the team for each position.”
There is little doubt the various squads have embraced the quest to try and qualify for Glasgow.
Kerry says many members of the 4x100m squad met up for an unscheduled squad gathering around the Tauranga Twlight meeting on New Year’s Day because they were so keen to work on relay technique and improve as a squad.
The women’s 4x400m squad have formed their own Facebook page to keep in touch and maintain a tight bond.
Yet ultimately the success of the programme will live or die by the times that the respective teams can run. In the short-term, the Classic series over the next couple of months offer qualification opportunities. Should athletes not be running quickly enough then time and energy will not be fruitlessly wasted.
“At the end of the day it is not worth us running a 4x400m if no-one in the squad is running 54 seconds. It is really simple,” says Williams. “The guiding light (for races to try and qualify) is if they start popping up and running 54s and 53s we’ll have a race.”
The men’s 4x100m team will have outings at the Capital Classic in Wellington tomorrow and then the Porritt Classic in Hamilton next month in an effort to achieve their goal. The programme will then be reassessed.
For many of the squads a time at or around the New Zealand record is needed to qualify for Glasgow. It is no easy task, but then again no goal worth pursuing should ever be easy.
“We are asking of our relay teams to produce the kind of performances they would normally expect to produce at an Olympic Games or World Championships at a Classic meet,” Kerry explains. “We have to hope they can get hyped up enough to perform well enough at that level. If they can then they have a good chance of qualifying.”
What they need to do?
What they need to do to qualify: 39.50
NZ record: 38.99
Squad: Joseph Millar, Kodi Harman, Isaac Tatoa, Ryan Howe, Zac Topping, Matthew Wyatt, Cameron French, James Mortimer, Michael Goldie, Matt Brown, Dalton Coppins, Andy Kruy, Andrew Kennedy.
Forthcoming races: Capital Classic, Wellington Jan 24, Porritt Classic, Hamilton, Feb 8.
What they need to do to qualify: 3:05.50
NZ record: 3:05.84
Squad: Andrew Whyte, Alex Jordan, Tama Toki, Frazer Wickes, Cameron French, Daniel O’Shea
Forthcoming races: Australian Junior Championships, Sydney Feb 15 (specially arranged 4x400m)
What they need to qualify: 45.00
NZ record: 44.60
Squad: Abby Goldie, Molly Florence, Zoe Hobbs, Fiona Morrison, Mariah Ririnui, Rochelle Coster, Anita Punt, Kelsey Berryman..
Forthcoming races: Capital Classic, Wellington Jan 24, Auckland Grand Prix, Mar 8
What they need to qualify: 3:36.50
NZ record: 3:35.90
Squad: Monique Dell, Louise Jones, Kristie Baille, Ellie McCleery, Zoe Ballantyne, Talia Horgan, Katherine Camp, Amy Robinson
Forthcoming races: TBC