Michelle Jenneke is Australia’s most marketable athlete.
Yes, the likes of Olympic gold medallists Sally Pearson and Jarred Tallent have certainly out-performed her on the big stage.
But in terms of billboards, social media and cut-through into mainstream society there is only one winner.
That’s why it is so puzzling that Jenneke was not included in the 62 athletes to receive funding under the National Athletic Support Structure in the lead-up to the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
That is the same Commonwealth Games that traditionally struggles to draw big crowds – and that the Gold Coast is hosting.
Athletics Australia will likely justify their decision on Jenneke’s poor Rio Games, where she failed to get out of the heats in the 100m hurdles.
But this is a decision they will regret.
It is still Australian sport’s great under-performer, despite a wealth of government funding.
You see, Jenneke is not just a big deal in Australia.
She shot to global prominence at the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona despite finishing fifth in the 100m hurdles.
Her jiggling pre-race dance routine caught the eye and went viral on YouTube, clocking more than 19 million views within a week.
It featured on America’s The Tonight Show and within a year, Jenneke had appeared in Sports Illustrated.
The Jenneke brand
As her profile grew rapidly, so did her social media following.
Over 413,000 people follow her on Instagram – more than the likes of Australian sporting legends Michael Clarke, Tim Cahill and model Jesinta Campbell.
Of course, it’s only social media, but to put Jenneke’s following into perspective is to look at Pearson’s.
She is a star performer, of that there is no question. But Pearson has ‘just’ 44,000 Instagram followers.
It’s a figure that demonstrates how popular Jenneke is – and famous brands have been quick to recognise that.
Puma signed her up to plug their brand and Coca-Cola came calling, too.
If you watched any of the Olympics, you are sure to remember Jenneke’s ads for the soft drink company.
She was one of just 79 international athletes who appeared in the company’s Gold promotion around the Rio Games.
Endorsement deals like the aforementioned have her current net worth estimated to be in the vicinity of $3 million – far in excess of other Australian athletes.
Indeed, her track performances have not kept pace with her galloping profile.
She flopped at the Rio Games in the absence of Pearson – but it is worth remembering she is the current Australian champion.
At 21, she finished fifth in the 2014 Commonwealth Games final and the only Aussie to ever run the 100m hurdles quicker than her is Pearson.
Athletics Australia head coach Craig Hilliard hit out at Jenneke post-Games, hinting at a potential rift.
“It’s simple. If you are going to be half-baked at doing something, why are we investing in you,” Hilliard pondered out loud.
They were comments that ignored Jenneke’s obvious potential.
And the decision to cut her funding is made all the more perplexing by the fact Australian athletics isn’t exactly brimming with marketable talent.
The team returned from Rio with a meagre silver and bronze – both won in road walks.
The Commonwealth Games
But Jenneke, with her global profile, is ideally suited to market the 2018 Commonwealth Games and reinvigorate athletics in this country.
She is also more than the sum total of her vast social media followers.
Jenneke is studying mechatronics at Sydney University and in 2012 she interrupted her studies and athletics schedule, undertaking volunteer work in Tanzanian orphanages.
This side of Jenneke should be showcased come Games time, when the event will be competing for space in Australia’s crowded sports media marketplace.
Just last week, Jenneke represented Sydney University at the Australian University Games.
A photo posted by Michelle Jenneke (@mjenneke93) on
She finished second in the long jump and won the 100 metre hurdles in a dawdle.
Jenneke immediately signalled her intention to return to serious training.
Athletics Australia should meet her half way.
After all, they need Jenneke more than she needs them.
Dr Tom Heenan teaches sports studies at Monash University.