Saturday 24 June 2017

Athletics: AI under fire as athletes delay Olympic plans

Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Frustrated coaches have hit out at Athletics Ireland this weekend, claiming the association has gone to ground at a crucial time for athletes in the Olympic cycle.

The Sunday Independent has learned of several athletes, who are either preparing for the Olympic Games or are seeking to get the 'A' Standard qualifying mark in the coming months, who have had to put training plans on hold in the last week because of confusion over Athletics Ireland's support.

John Coghlan, who coaches sprinter Paul Hession, has expressed his frustration over what he sees as a lack of communication between Athletics Ireland and its athletes.

Coghlan also trains a number of potential Olympians including rising star Steven Colvert. Hession and Colvert, both 100m and 200m runners, are training partners. Hession has already qualified for the Olympics while Colvert is only 0.16 off the 'A' standard time.

Coghlan and Hession are currently in South Africa on a training camp but because of a lack of funding, DCU student Colvert had to miss out on the trip. According to Coghlan, Colvert was left high and dry by Athletics Ireland.

"They met him in early December to hear his plans," said Coghlan. "They told him they'd be in touch at the start of January. He's sent emails and called but heard nothing back. It's very hard for him to make any plans when he doesn't know how much money he will have.

"Steven was on a development grant last year but the status of it is unknown at the moment. Currently he has no money and it's impossible for him to get a loan when he doesn't know if he can pay it back. He's very worried about the year ahead. Plans aren't made the day before something, they are made weeks and months in advance and the Olympics are only seven months away."

However, Athletics Ireland's new high-performance director Kevin Ankrom says that as far as he is concerned there is no issue between the association and its elite athletes.

"All the athletes who are carded got their last payments in December," said Ankrom. "There isn't anything out of the norm going on. They just got paid on a normal schedule; they don't get a payment again until March.

"I've just come into the job and now I've had the opportunity to see the whole structure and I've also had the opportunity to do some planning. I submitted those plans to the Sports Council, they have been okayed, and they have returned some budget figures.

"Now that I have those figures I can look at the programmes we have in place and see how they can be revised. Every carded athlete and coach has been told this and they have been told that in January we will come out with updated carding criteria and from that we will allocate funding."

Nonetheless, there is clearly widespread frustration among coaches and athletes and, at the very least, there appears to be a massive communication breakdown -- which is hardly ideal as we are now in the final run-in to the Olympics.

One coach who spoke to the Sunday Independent, but who did not want to be named, was scathing in his criticism of Athletics Ireland. He described the communication between the high-performance unit of Athletics Ireland and the athletes and coaches as "appalling".

"There are an awful lot of presentations being given and a lot of rhetoric, but we've seen nothing practical or genuine coming from Athletics Ireland," he claimed. "It's not good enough. We are in an Olympic year now and they are not providing the service that they should and are not supporting the athletes.

"We spent months sending in plans and making requests but we are hearing nothing back. It seems that administration is coming first and athletes are second.

"London is the closest Games we are ever going to get; it's hard to see the athletes who are looking forward to going be so disappointed and frustrated. All the uncertainty is putting pressure on them and affecting their training.

"Preparing for an Olympics is tough, they should be getting help instead of having to deal with added stress. Last year when training camps were organised all the athletes knew months in advance. There seems to be no camps organised for the next few months, no-one seems to know what is going on and the Games are only around the corner."

Ankrom, who only took up his his position last spring which is effectively very late in an Olympic cycle for an athlete, has repeatedly stated that it will take him time to develop relationships.

"I was brought in to make some positive changes and while I do know that there are times when things are going to be uncomfortable for some, I told people I'd get back to them in the New Year, we are just there now and I'm just about ready to get back to people," he said this weekend.

Meanwhile, European Cross-Country champion Fionnuala Britton struck gold again yesterday in the Great Edinburgh Cross-Country international.

Britton looked comfortable and confident throughout the race. She coasted on the first lap, keeping close to the front, never looking under pressure. By the half-way stage she had taken the lead and drifted away from the pack with only British athlete Gemma Steel for company.

Steel, bronze medallist in the Europeans, tried hard to keep up with Britton but by the final lap the pace was too much for her and Britton pushed on. The 27-year-old crossed the line in a time of 21 minutes, 32 seconds, a full 20 seconds ahead of Steel.

"I knew I was the person out there that everyone was going to try and chase down so I knew I was going to have to have a strong race," said Britton, whose performance was full of the new-found confidence she has gained from winning a major title.

"Over the last couple of days I felt the pressure building up a bit. There was the Europeans, then Christmas and then you come over here and you have to focus because it's a big event.

"So I knew that I had to give a big performance to win. I was not really sure what kind of form I was in because while you do the training you never know what will happen until the gun goes but I felt strong on the hills and that was a big help."

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