When Australian runner Oliver Hoare crossed the finish-line in the 1500m race at an indoor event in New York last Saturday, the commentator’s exclamation said it all: “Wow!” Hoare’s burst of speed around the final bend had earned him a winning time of 3:32.35, breaking the Australian record and placing him eighth on the all-time list.
Hoare’s pace makes him an obvious medal contender at the Tokyo Olympics this July. An Australian has not made the podium in the middle distance event since 1960, when legendary athlete Herb Elliott smashed his own world record to claim gold. But there is one major barrier standing in the way of Hoare replicating Elliott’s feat: his path to Olympic qualification is far from assured.
Based in the United States, Covid-19 travel restrictions prevent the 24-year-old from returning home for Athletics Australia’s primary selection event, the Track and Field Championships in Sydney in April. That puts Hoare’s selection at the discretion of administrators, rather than based on his race times alone.
“It is a tough thing for me and other athletes based overseas,” Hoare tells Guardian Australia. “There is still a way to make the team, but it is a lot harder. Even I ran a quicker time than last week – even if I got close to under 3.30 – they still have to select you based on rankings and times, they won’t pick you automatically.
“I think Athletics Australia understand that this is not a usual year; ordinarily I would be back for the trials,” Hoare says. “But because of Covid-19, travelling home is difficult and a risk in terms of getting infected. That’s hard but it is what it is. Hopefully there are exceptions and if athletes overseas run well and keep up consistency, the people that deserve to make the team will make the team.”
The winner of each race at the Track and Field Championships automatically qualifies for Tokyo (provided they have run an Olympic qualifying time during the season). Athletics Australia can then pick up to two more athletes per event, on the basis of its nomination policy.
An Athletics Australia spokesperson told Guardian Australia it was taking active steps to support Australian athletes based overseas, and would provide treadmills during hotel quarantine to those who do return for the championships. “Anyone who fulfils the nomination policy is eligible for selection to the Australian Olympic team,” said the spokesperson. “Athletes do not have to compete in Australia to seek Olympic qualification.”
However, with Australia boasting extensive talent in the middle-distance field at present, Hoare’s selection remains in doubt. Charlie Hunter and Morgan McDonald both smashed records in recent performances, while at Rio 2016 Ryan Gregson became the first Australian man to reach the 1500m final in four decades. Last September, Stewart McSweyn claimed the outdoor national 1500m record at a race in Doha.
“I am hopeful that I will be going to Tokyo,” says Hoare. “One thing I have learned about this sport is you can’t hide behind anything – you run your race, you record your time, you earn your ranking. Currently I’m ranked top two in the world, so I am in a good position. It has been my dream since I was a kid to make the Olympics. I would hate for that to be ruined by a technicality. I am hopeful that if I race well, I can make the team.”
Hoare’s predicament is indicative of a wider challenge facing Australian athletes ahead of Tokyo 2021. Much of the usual global sporting circuit has ground to a halt due to the pandemic, and many Australian athletes are unable to travel for the few overseas competitions that are still taking place.
Seventy-eight Australian athletes have already been officially selected for Tokyo, while more than 300 quota spots have been secured based on international results this Olympic cycle. The Australian Olympic Committee predicts that it will take approximately 480 athletes to Tokyo, potentially surpassing previous largest ‘away’ Olympics cohort of 482 for Athens 2004. That leaves plenty of spots available, and uncertain selection pathways for many athletes.
“The AOC has been providing significant support to athletes and their sports to provide every opportunity for athletes to attend qualification events in these difficult circumstances,” said an AOC spokesperson. “The AOC has also worked closely with each national federation on updating their nomination and selection policies since the postponement and changes to qualifying pathways.”
As qualification pathways are typically a matter for international governing federations, the AOC says that it has been working with national federations to highlight the particular difficulties faced by Australian athletes and secure alternative pathways. The AOC has also developed “Project Wagasa” (Japanese for umbrella) to provide support for athletes in the build up to Tokyo. “The AOC is doing everything in its power to ensure Australia will be represented by the largest team to leave Australia’s shores for Olympic competition,” said the spokesperson.
For now, Hoare is trying to stay focused and continue to press his case for selection. As a former college athlete at the University of Wisconsin, visa issues (and the pandemic) prevented him from racing extensively after turning professional in 2020. But 2021 brings more opportunity to shine. “This year I’ve been able to put myself on the map,” says Hoare. “If I keep racing and training the way I am, being hopeful of an Olympic medal – even Olympic gold – isn’t something I will shy away from.”