In the 125-year history of the modern Olympics, only two Australian men have won a medal in the 100 metre sprint. Stan Rowley claimed bronze at the 1900 Olympics in Paris and Hector Hogan repeated the feat at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. With a keen sense of history, Rohan Browning wants to become the third at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.
“I’m a sports history nerd,” Browning tells Guardian Australia. “I love to watch videos and look at data from past sprinters. Australia hasn’t had an Olympic medallist in the 100m since Hec Hogan. But the question is; why not? Why not me, why not any other Australian? For a lot of casual fans, it is easy to write off Australian athletes because the history isn’t there in the sprint events in terms of winning medals at the highest levels.”
Not for much longer, if Browning has his way. “It just takes one person to change that,” he says. At the weekend, he ran 10.05s at the Queensland Track Classic to become the third fastest Australian in history. “I’ve certainly felt worse,” Browning says. In January, he broke the hallowed 10-second barrier with a 9.96s at the Illawarra Track Challenge (albeit the time was wind-assisted). In Tokyo, Browning is hoping to secure his first legal sub-10-second run and potentially a place on the podium.
“I’m not trying to be Usain Bolt,” Browning says. “I’m trying to be the best athlete I can possibly be. I always keep an eye on the history books; you have to want to create your own history.”
Having secured the qualifying time, Browning just needs to contest the 100m at the national championships next month to book his ticket to Tokyo. “It’s been a long build-up to the Olympics, so to have all-but punched my ticket takes a real weight off, to be honest.” Browning will become the first male athlete to represent Australia in the Olympic 100m since Josh Ross in 2004.
But he knows the hard work is just beginning. “Those superlatives are always nice, it’s a good little ego boost,” he says. “But it is one thing to get to the starting line by qualifying, and an entirely different challenge to perform well there and do something that you can be proud of and will make the country proud. That remains in the back of my mind – the work isn’t done and I still have a long way to go.”
Come Tokyo, Browning will travel with high hopes. “What would success look like? I’d like to win – first and foremost.” The gold medal time at the 2016 Olympics was Bolt’s 9.81s, although the Jamaican’s retirement leaves a less pacy field. “We work backwards from there,” he says. “I’d love to get on the podium. But being young, being still early in my career, getting to the final would show a lot of upside. But nothing less than making the final.
“It’s a difficult question to answer because performance is always relative. I am never fully satisfied with a run – the day I think I’ve run the perfect race is the day I should walk away from the sport, because there will be nothing left to give. If you come 40th you’ll be disappointed, if you come fourth you’ll be disappointed to miss the podium, if you come second you will have wanted to come first. That’s the flipside of that competitive mentality you need to compete at the highest level.”
Born in Sydney, Browning grew up around team sports – rugby, baseball, football and cricket. But when Browning moved to Trinity Grammar School aged 12, he gravitated towards sprinting under the wing of coach Andrew Murphy, an ex-Olympic triple jumper. The pair have worked together ever since, although Browning says switching from team sport to an individual discipline was quite the adjustment.
“I really had to learn to love the thrill of track and field, which involves taking total ownership of your results,” he says. “When you play a team sport, sure you might miss a tackle and someone scores, but it’s always the team’s fault, it is never any one individual. When I missed the Commonwealth Games final [in 2018] by one thousandth of a second – 0.001 – I remember I got interviewed and the journalist said I must be gutted. I remembered thinking: I just have to run faster.
“That’s always it. It’s not your coach, your psychologist, your physio – they all play such an important role behind the scenes, and I cannot emphasise more the importance of those people in the results that I’ve had recently – but ultimately you’re the one that gets behind the blocks. The buck stops with you.”
Browning took to the sport and has been training full-time since he was 16, although he admits finding a balance between athletics and his studies is not always easy. He is currently studying law at Sydney University and concedes he is approaching his seventh year of a five-year degree. “I juggle them the best I can,” he says. “But when it comes to crunch-time I am always going to put the sport first – I have a deadline that is looming from a physical perspective, in my early 30s, whereas I can be a lawyer for the rest of my life.”
Browning jokes that “the better I run the longer I can avoid becoming a lawyer”, but he says he is genuinely interested in a legal career post-sport, possibly as a barrister. “I think I’d enjoy the sport of it.”
Before then, Australia’s third-fastest sprinter of all-time wants to keep making history. After Tokyo, Browning has his eyes on Paris 2024. “I’ll be a bit older, a bit more developed,” he says. “I’ll then be 30 for LA and 34 by the time Brisbane 2032 rolls around.”
Could a home-country swansong be on the cards for this ambitious young runner, after another decade of competition? “If I think I can be competitive with the best guys in the world, I’ll be around. But the day I don’t believe that anymore is the day I walk away having answered all my questions.”