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9 August 2023 • General

Toni Hodgkinson – World Athletics Championships Time Tunnel

New Zealand 800m record-holder Toni Hodgkinson in action at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Credit: Getty Images

In the first of our series reflecting on leading Kiwi moments in the 40-year history of the World Athletics Championships we take a trip down memory lane to recall the 800m feats of Toni Hodgkinson at the 1997 event in Athens.

Tall and athletic and blessed with a formidable combination of speed and endurance, Toni Hodgkinson remains one of New Zealand finest ever female middle-distance athletes.

Perhaps best known for her exploits at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where she set a New Zealand and Oceania record of 1:58.25 – the NZ record still stands today – in the semi-finals before placing eighth in the final, there is little doubt her place in the history of Kiwi running is firmly embedded.

Yet, arguably, her performance when placing sixth in the 800m final at the 1997 World Athletics Championships in Athens against a stellar field was just as impressive and today remains one of the finest performances by a track athlete wearing the Black Singlet in the rich 40-year history of the event.

Coached by John Davies, a 1964 Olympic 1500m bronze medallist, Toni was in a good place both physically and mentally in 1997.

“I had learned a lot from the previous year,” recalls Toni, 51. “In many ways 1996 was a surprise performance and I had run well to even qualify for the Olympics. I then had that breakthrough run of 1:58.25 in the semi-final (at the Atlanta Olympics).

“Around that time, I had finished physiotherapy study and once I started to work regularly, I recommitted and focused on my athletics. John really improved my endurance, and I became a lot stronger under his training. It just took me a wee while to fulfil the potential I had shown as a teenager.”

She began her year with a series of impressive performances on the domestic stage before heading to Europe in March to compete at the World Indoor Championships in Paris. In the French capital Toni impressed to place fifth in the final in an Oceania record of 2:00.36 – just under a second-and-a-half behind the formidable Maria Mutola of Mozambique.

Later that year in the countdown to the World Athletics Championships she continued to catch the eye, running sub-two-minute times in Stockholm, Stuttgart and Nice and the Kiwi two-lap specialist arrived in Athens full of confidence.

“Tactically I had developed and my ability to run in a bunch had improved a lot,” she says.

Competing at the same event where discus thrower Beatrice Faumuina secured the first World Championships gold for New Zealand, Toni was aware of the size of the challenge she faced when lining up in the first round heats. With just the top two in each heat plus the next six fastest advancing to the semi-finals, the Kiwi knew there was little room for error.

Competing in boiling temperatures during the morning heats, the defending champion Anna Quirot of Cuba claimed heat two victory in 2:01.56 ahead of Olena Martson (2:02:00) of Ukraine with the Toni settling for third in 2:02.21 and relying on time to progress to the semi-final.

“Back then it was often only the first two to go through automatically from the first round, which often made it the hardest round to get out of. At the semi-final stage it was often the first four who qualified for the final, where you seemingly had more chance to progress.

“I remember finishing third in my heat and feeling disappointed I had not gained an automatic spot (to the semi-finals) but I still had confidence I would squeak into the final.”

Thankfully, her instincts proved correct as the Kiwi, then aged 25, squeezed into the semi-finals in the final spot as the sixth fastest on time.

Running a much better race on her return to the Olympic Stadium for the semi-finals the following evening, she ran with far greater smoothness to bank the fourth and final qualification spot in 2:00.25 behind race winner Quirot (1:59.37).

More than quarter of a century has passed since the 800m final in Athens, so memories have faded, but she recalls being “satisfied’ with her performance in the medal race. Going through the bell placed fifth in a fairly modest 58 seconds – significantly slower than in many races on the Grand Prix circuit – unfortunately she could not quite get within striking distance of the medallists in the final lap.

Crossing the line in sixth in 2:00.40 was still, nonetheless, an outstanding display as Quirot defended her title in 1:57.14 ahead of Russian Yelena Afanasyeva (1:57.56) with Mutola, who would go on to win the Olympic 800m title at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in bronze (1:57.59).

Two years later Toni competed at her second and final World Championships in Seville, where she failed to advance from the first round heats, but can look back with pride on her efforts in the Greek capital.

“The strength of the top athletes would often count over that last 200m,” she says. “I would often be there but couldn’t match their strength in the latter stages. But I was positive about the performance, and I was satisfied to pick up a couple of positions on my eighth place at the Olympics.”

Based today in Motueka, where she is a shareholder in a number of ITM building stores with her husband, Alistair, a two-time former New Zealand 400m hurdles silver medallist, Toni is still connected with the sport through her eldest of two daughters, Camryn, the 2021 New Zealand senior women’s 400m champion.

Enjoying re-engaging with the sport through Camryn she can nonetheless for now still boast the superior athletics record in the family. In the 40-year history of the World Athletics Championships only one Kiwi – Kim Smith when fourth in 10,000m final at the 2007 edition in Osaka – has a better track finishing position than Toni achieved in Athens. So where does her performance in the sizzling heat of Athens stack up in her career accomplishments?

“It would be my second or third best performance ever,” she explains. “I had run a little bit quicker in the past but to do it at a World Championships – where you are racing three times in four days – is quite different. It is a performance I’m proud of.”