Sunday 24 September 2017

All bases covered as Irish chiefs identify ideal home from home

OCI boss Stephen Martin tells Cliona Foley why small city of Uberlandia is ideal location for all-important pre-Games holding camp

IT isn't just Ireland's athletes who are already immersed in preparations for the Rio Olympics in 2016. Irish sports chiefs have already been involved in their own fight to stay ahead of the posse by bagging the best possible sites for the all-important pre-Games holding camp.

The first South American Olympics in history could not offer Ireland a greater contrast, logistically, than London.

With Sonia O'Sullivan as Chef de Mission in 2012, the Irish team undoubtedly benefited from her local knowledge.

Having had a house for years near Richmond Park, a leafy suburb in west London, O'Sullivan suggested a private sports club/hotel (Lensbury), next door to St Mary's College (Strawberry Hill) and all its ancillary training facilities, as the venue for Ireland's holding camp – where athletes continue their training and team building before entering the athletes' village much closer to their events.

They are vital to ensure that athletes stay in peak physical and mental condition despite all the distractions of the Olympic circus.

For Irish athletes, the so-called 'home Olympics' in 2012 involved minimum problems in terms of travel, climate and food.

Many countries, including Britain, based themselves some distance away in towns like Bath and Sheffield, but Ireland's early move to secure their holding camp across the city from the Olympic Park proved a stroke of genius.

It meant athletes had minimal transfer times into the village and could continue training locally with relatively little attention or pressure.

But come 2016, competing halfway around the world in a different time-zone, culture and climate, will present much more of the usual Olympic difficulties.

If Irish sports chiefs hadn't moved quickly, all the best holding camp sites would have been snapped up.

That's why the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) have already made two trips to Rio this year – accompanied by representatives of the Paralympics, the Sports Council and individual sports.

Cynics will view these as junkets for the blazers but, given the complex needs of such a mix of sports, it is vital to get on the ground as quickly as possible.

Their last trip included the CEO of Triathlon Ireland, Chris Kitchen, who travelled to gain sport-specific intelligence on tidal conditions, water temperature, road surfaces (apparently there's a surfeit of speed bumps in Rio) and gradients; information that can be shared with Irish cycling.

The logistics for Ireland's equestrian team will be complicated, and Ireland's sailors, for whom Weymouth was virtually a home venue, need to quickly establish an early training base in Rio to acquaint themselves with local waters and winds. This will be something as prosaic as placing an industrial-sized container locally to store boats and equipment securely and finding some cheap accommodation.

Ireland's increasingly successful Paralympic team – which they hope will contain over 50 athletes for Rio – often have additional logistical challenges.

Securing a flight to accommodate large numbers of people with mobility issues can be problematic if not done well in advance.

It isn't only Irish officials who have already been out in Rio doing research and gladhandling.

Britain look set to base themselves in the city of Belo Horizonte, one of the host cities for the 2014 World Cup, which Ireland looked at but rejected.

"It's a short flight from Rio, had some nice facilities but it's a city of 2.5 million and we felt it was a bit busy," says OCI chief executive Stephen Martin, a three-time hockey Olympian (with Britain) and two-time medallist.

The OCI have chosen a nearby city called Uberlandia (pop: 760,000) and a local multi-sports club called 'Praia Clube', which Brazil's athletics federation uses as a high-performance centre.

"The city is nice and quiet and the club has great indoor and outdoor facilities, including a pool," Martin says.

"There are equestrian facilities nearby, pitches for rugby Sevens and lots of lakes locally which would suit our rowers."

Uberlandia recently hosted the World U-23 Volleyball Championship, and Martin has already exchanged a letter of intent with the local mayor to base Ireland there.

"It's important we get our towel down early," he explains.

"Once that's done we will look in more detail at accommodation, but there are good hotels with internet and a first-class hospital where we could get blood profiles turned around in 24 hours.

"Those are the sort of things that are important when you're dealing with elite athletes."

Irish Independent

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