CHRIS UHLMANN, PRESENTER: Four years ago, Athletics Australia set a target of six medals for the London Olympics - two more than our athletes won in Beijing. It hired a new head coach to do it. But ever since Eric Hollingsworth took over, he has polarised the sport. His supporters say he is a revelation, but others complain he's stunting development with his tough line. So far, only one Australian sprinter has qualified for the games. Here's the ABC's Olympics reporter Ben Knight.
BEN KNIGHT, REPORTER: In a few days' time, this stadium in Melbourne will host Australia's national Olympic trials. Years of pain and struggle come down to this. The chance to make it all worthwhile. For decades, these trials have been where young Australian athletes got their chance to qualify for the games. Actually, it's not quite like that any more.
ERIC HOLLINGSWORTH, ATHLETICS AUSTRALIA: We've got almost everyone over the line that we need for the team.
BEN KNIGHT: Eric Hollingsworth is the National High Performance Director for Australian athletics - essentially he is the head coach. He is often called controversial, even divisive. He took over the job after the Beijing Olympics, with a clear policy that mediocrity will not be tolerated.
ERIC HOLLINGSWORTH: From my point of view, when you go to the Olympic Games, you go to compete.
BEN KNIGHT: From that point on, only athletes who've met the top qualification standard are selected - for the Commonwealth Games, the World Championships, and now, the Olympics. Some already have their ticket to London. And on paper, it's a hell of a team.
SPORTS ANNOUNCER: And she's powering away!
BEN KNIGHT: This is the star, Sally Pearson. Reigning world champion, international athlete of the year. There's Steve Hooker, the reigning Olympic champion.
SPORTS ANNOUNCER: He goes over!
BEN KNIGHT: Mitchell Watt is the gold medal favourite in the long jump, in what will only be his first Olympics. There are former world champions, as well as the up-and-comers. And Eric Hollingsworth says his system is working. Athletes are lifting to meet the standard - and those who can't, simply don't go.
ERIC HOLLINGSWORTH: At the end of the day, the Australian taxpayer, and the people who invest their tax dollars, want to see Australians win and do well at major championships. There is nothing worse - and I've been in the position before - where the phone goes after Australia doesn't do well at championships. Our responsibility in high performance is to get performance for Australia.
BEN KNIGHT: He has been given the budget to do it too. An extra $1.5 million last year to spend on high performance, for a total of $5.5 million. But his critics say there's just one problem.
NIC BIDEAU, ATHLETICS COACH: It's not working.
BEN KNIGHT: Nic Bideau is one of Australia's most successful athletics coaches. He has got eight runners qualified for the London Games.
NIC BIDEAU: It's been tried before in other countries and other places. It's a failed system. Because you have to try to get as many people doing it. Just by hand-picking two or three and saying, "You push yourself and get higher and higher", you will end up with just a handful of people. You will never get a lot of people.
BEN KNIGHT: The policy is affecting some pretty big names. John Steffensen has been improving fast this summer, but he still has only a B qualifying time under his belt. He needs to run an A qualifying time this weekend if he wants to secure a spot in the 400m. Fabrice Lapierre went to Beijing on a B qualifier. He too is also running out of time to make top mark. But Australia's national jumps coach says that proves Eric Hollingsworth's system is working.
GARY BOURNE, NATIONAL JUMPS COACH: We have got four people capable of doing the A standard fighting for three positions on the team. That is a very healthy position to be in.
BEN KNIGHT: But the policy of "top performance or nothing" has punched a giant-sized hole in Australia's Olympic squad. Where are the sprinters?
NIC BIDEAU: We haven't got one person in the men's - 100, 200, 400, 400 metre hurdles or 110 metre hurdles - who's qualified. In the women the only person who has qualified in those events is Sally Pearson; one woman in the 400m hurdles. We could be going to the Olympic Games with no person in any event below 800m, except for Sally Pearson.
BEN KNIGHT: Compare that to Athens in 2004, when there were men competing in the 100, 200 and 400m races, as well as the 100 and 400m relays. Eric Hollingsworth makes no apologies.
ERIC HOLLINGSWORTH: We're a small nation. We have to complete on the technical events - things likes pole vault, the long jump, etcetera. Sprinting - at the end of the day, we've only ever had one man under 10 seconds. The bar has been raised by the Jamaicans and the Americans over the last few years, particularly in the sprints, and the sprinters haven't come up to that line. It's as simple as that.
NIC BIDEAU: We've had 'em before. We've had people win medals in those before. It's never easy to find Olympic athletes - even harder to find Olympic finalists or Olympic champions - but we have done it before. The system is failing to produce people that are good, good athletes.
BEN KNIGHT: But the all-or-nothing rule doesn't apply to everybody. Steve Hooker walked away from the pole vault in Adelaide last month after losing his nerve. He hasn't competed since, and he hasn't qualified. But it's widely expected he will get a pass to defend his gold medal in London. Eric Hollingsworth's critics say he is only interested in the top athletes - the ones who are likely to win medals. And they say that his selection policies are stopping those middle-rung athletes from getting a taste of what it's like to compete on the world stage.
NIC BIDEAU: Two years ago in the Commonwealth Games, which is really a development meet, we didn't send a full team. We should be sending anyone we can possibly get to go to that meet, to give them experience.
BEN KNIGHT: So, if I'm an Australian sprinter, and I'm listening to what you're saying, why wouldn't I just give up now?
ERIC HOLLINGSWORTH: Because there's relays.
BEN KNIGHT: Why not send a women's four x 100 to the Commonwealth Games?
ERIC HOLLINGSWORTH: Because they didn't qualify.
BEN KNIGHT: But isn't that a development event?
ERIC HOLLINGSWORTH: No, it's not a development event. The Commonwealth Games is part of the cycle of one of the major championships. And this is one of the misnomers as well. You don't use things like the Olympic Games and the World Championship just to develop people. They are performance events. If I know anything about Australians, they like to win. They don't like to come last.
I totally agree with Bideau. Hollingsworth's record is failure after failure and this is no exception.
I agree with Hollingsworth.
Its not his job to coach them.
For too long sprinters have lived on reputation - for the occasional fast run.
Shirvington etc, even Stephenson. Big disappointment. Too much pandering.
Run faster or go home is my view.
Its not a welfare system. The line is drawn in the sand, now its time for the sprinters to pick up their game. Its of no value sending prima donnas to get run out in the first round. That is more detrimental to the Oz locals than not picking them.