Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Deek says Aussies can challenge East Africans

By Damien Stannard From: The Sunday Telegraph June

MARATHON great Robert de Castella believes indigenous Australians can break Africa's domination of distance running.

The former world and Commonwealth Games champion is scouring the Northern Territory to find Australia's next generation of Olympians.

He is taking his squad to the New York Marathon in November.

De Castella has uncovered four prospects from remote communities in Australia's north, young men who by enduring extreme and unique conditions are hoping to prove they have what it takes to race over 42.2km.

"It's very different to the training most of us would identify with," de Castella said.

"One of the boys is from Maningrida and he finds it difficult to run in town because of dogs chasing him.

"The local cop has to drive him 5km out of town so he can run back home without getting chased and bitten."

The Run to America project is part of de Castella's greater vision of returning Australia to a prominent position in the sport.

Today, 38 of the world's top 40 marathoners hail from Africa and no Australian has come close to replicating de Castella's victory at the Helsinki world championships in 1983.

Unwilling to accept the Africans' dominance is unbreakable, de Castella believes he can help unearth an Aboriginal runner who is just as quick.

"I was keen to see an Australian back on top of the world stage, but at the moment the Africans are dominant," he said. "I've talked to people like [AFL coach] Kevin Sheedy about their involvement with indigenous players. They have phenomenal endurance, but we've never had a top indigenous endurance athlete. There's been great boxers, sprinters, footballers. They're all fast-twitch athletes.

"It's not because they don't have the talent [to run marathons].

"They've just never had the opportunity or support."

Athletes across the Northern Territory and Western Australia were invited to apply to join a training squad. De Castella and head coach John Bell put the 300 applicants through a battery of physical and psychological tests.

The list was whittled down to six runners, two of whom are concentrating on sport-related work in their communities instead of running.

The remaining four are Juan Darwin, 22, from Maningrida, Joseph Davies, 18, from Kununurra in Western Australia, and Caleb Hart, 17, and Charlie Maher, 24, from Alice Springs.

The athletes are splitting their time between training at home and visits to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, where they are learning the finer points of long-distance running.