Potential, Potential

In 2012, Canberran sprinter Melissa Breen received “the phone call I’ve been waiting my whole life for” from Athletics Australia, informing her that she had been nominated to represent her country at the London Olympics. Breen had narrowly missed out on running an A qualifying time – by 0.002 of a second – however, she was selected for the team through a clause in Athletics Australia’s selection criteria based around an athlete’s potential for future success:

“Athletics Australia may choose to send Athletes to the 2012 Olympic Games, London who the Selectors consider have the potential to develop into top 8 prospects for the 2016 Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro…provided that the Selectors are also of the view that such an Athlete would benefit from the experience of competing in the 2012 Olympic Games, London.”

At the time of the decision, Breen’s personal best time was 11.29, and she ran 11.43 in London – good for 6th in her heat and 35th overall.

Breen improved on this performance at the 2013 World Championships, where her time of 11.47 saw her 27th overall, only four places – 0.06 of a second – away from qualifying for the semi-finals. She also improved her personal best ever-so-slightly in March, running 11.25.

However, in 2013, Athletics Australia have decided not to include Breen on their National Athlete Support Structure funding list. To qualify for the ‘Development’ level of funding, an athlete must have “the realistic capacity” to reach an Olympic or World Championship Final “within four years.”

Athletics Australia’s decision was at best controversial and at worst horrifically unfair.

To sum up, in 2012, a 22 year-old athlete was seen as having the potential to reach the Olympic Final within 4 years. In the 12 months since, she has improved on her PB, run to her ranking at the World Championships, improved her results at major events from 35th to 27th, and is now not seen as being a potential World Championship finalist within 4 years.

While Breen finished 27th overall at the World Championships this year, she is the 59th fastest woman on the planet in 2013. But importantly, with so many Americans and Jamaicans above her in the World rankings, and only 3 athletes from each country eligible to qualify for the Olympics and World Champs, Breen ranks 27th overall when only 3 athletes from the USA and Jamaica are included in the rankings.

Of course, one key lesson to arise out of this is that Breen chose the wrong sport in which to become elite. The 59th best women’s tennis player in 2013 was Romania’s Monica Niculescu, who finished the year with a 27-25 record and four first-round losses at the Grand Slams. She also pocketed $406,372 in prizemoney.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all of this for the Australian sporting public, though, is the fact that someone who is so successful in her field isn’t worthy of financial support at all.

For what worth does an athlete have to their country?

Had Breen been seen as someone with the potential to reach an Olympic Final, regardless of her potential to win a medal, she would have received funding. Athletics Australia’s National Athlete Support Structure is designed to contribute to the Commonwealth Government’s “Winning Edge” program, launched last year, which aims to see Australia finish in the top 5 nations at the Olympics and Paralympics, as the top nation as the Commonwealth Games, and produce 20 World Champions each year. To help achieve this, Athletics Australia’s funding aims “to achieve medals, supported by additional top eight places” at the Olympics and World Champs.

As such, it appears that the tax-paying public are supposed to believe that the country benefits – one assumes in a national-pride kind of way – when an athlete reaches an Olympic Final. They are also supposed to believe that any Australian athlete qualifying for the Olympics but not reaching the final provides no benefit to the country at all.

And so, Australia’s National Champion in the 100m is left to go-it-alone as she aims to break Melinda Gainsford-Taylor’s National Record and to reach greater heights in Rio and beyond. She’s left hoping that someone in the corporate sector might sponsor her training and travels – “I think I could be a great asset to anyone.

Maybe a business will come through and see potential in Breen. Maybe they will see potential in her performance on the track, or maybe they will see potential in her promotional photographs that appear designed to attract attention to Breen’s potential as an off-track talent.

Or maybe at the end of her career, Breen will find that she has never finished higher than 9th at a major event. If so, Athletics Australia – and, one assumes, some taxpayers – will feel that the right call has been made. Breen, meanwhile, may just wonder whether or not a lack of funding restricted her from achieving her true potential.

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