JUNE 5-6th, 2021


Leonora Golden Gift Winner, Stewart McSweyn breaks another Aussie record

For those not closely monitoring Tasmania’s Christmas Carnivals series of cycling and athletics competitions – i.e. most of the world – Stewart McSweyn’s 3:50.61 mile at Penguin on 29 December came as a bolt from the blue.

Not that there’s any surprise about McSweyn running that fast. His performances this year have made it obvious he could, and would. The surprise was more in the occasion and the venue – a competition in Penguin, a tiny town on Tasmania’s north-west coast on the Bass Strait, the body of water separating Tasmania from the Australian mainland.
Further, while the Christmas Carnivals feature some scratch races, their roots and continued appeal run deep into the traditional handicap racing of Australia’s “professional” running circuits. In these events, the runners off the back-marks concede significant starts to the less-talented outmarkers. The fate of runners of McSweyn’s calibre, as often as not, is to fail – gallantly – to catch someone to whom they have given a start of 300 metres or more.
Indeed, in one such race a few years ago Craig Mottram – still clinging to the national mile record at 3:48.91 – failed to chase down a local school teacher. “I knew I had him beaten with 300 to go,” the winner subsequently declared, his confidence based on the knowledge that even if the man off the scratch mark gets into a winning position he will just a likely have expended too much energy doing so to actually go on and win.
Tim O’Shaughnessy, who is up in Falls Creek now, along with a fair proportion of the Australian distance-running scene, threw up a curly question about the record run. Was this the fastest mile run, he wondered, in a town named after a bird. I think it might be, but did come up with a bird association linked to an even-faster one.
You can read my answer to that one below, but it was another ‘stat’ which caught my attention. McSweyn’s 3:50.61 was not only the world’s fastest mile in the (unprecedented) year of 2020, but it also displaced another Australian from the top of the list. Matthew Ramsden had led the way until then with his 3:51.23 at San Donato Milanese in Italy.
Though Australia has had world-class milers more or less continuously from the time John Landy sparked a renewed chase for the sub-four minute mile some 70 years ago, instances of two Australians sitting on top of the world list at the end of the year have been rare. Landy and Jim Bailey ran three 3:58.6 miles back in 1956 – two for Landy, one for Bailey in his shock win over Landy at the Los Angeles Coliseum – and Herb Elliott and Merv Lincoln were the two fastest-ever milers at the end of 1958 after Elliott’s 3:54.5 world record in Dublin with Lincoln second in 3:55.9.
Since then, not so much: nothing, in fact. Even in the peculiar circumstances of 2020, McSweyn and Ramsden’s achievement bears recognition.
Now to the matter of bird associations. A quick perusal of the venue for performances near the top of the world all-time list came up blank as far as venues went, but it did reveal one I have previously written about – American miler Joe Falcon won the Dream Mile in Oslo in 1990 in 3:49.31. Perhaps his win was heralded with “Falcon swoops to win” headlines.
In the following year’s Dream Mile, Simon Doyle set a national record 3:49.91 in fourth place to Peter Elliott’s 3:49.46. Mottram relieved Doyle of the national record in another Oslo Dream Mile, this one the 2005 edition. Records are supposed to be set in the Dream Mile at Oslo’s Bislett Games, but Penguin, Tasmania, two days before year’s end is another thing entirely.
Granted, the record McSweyn took was not the national record, but Doyle’s Australian all-comers’ mark of 3:51.54. That was set in the Melbourne Track Classic in 1991, so was well into its thirtieth year of existence. McSweyn will run faster. The national record seems well within his reach. But his Penguin track record seems destined for an equally-long life as its predecessor.
Lastly, what of Falls Creek? Twelve months ago I wrote of how threatening bushfires had forced us out of Australia’s premier alpine training venue and what an unheard-of thing that was. We thought that would surely be the low-point of the year, then along came coronavirus. Now, our 2020-21 stay is punctuated by renewed outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales.
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year is normally a statement of expectation that such will be the case. At the start of 2021, it is a fervent hope that it will be. Stay healthy, everyone.
Written by Len Johnson for Runner's Tribe and the Leonora Golden Gift.
About the author: Len Johnson is a former Age sports columnist and is regarded as one of the premier athletics journalist in the world.

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