Athletics: Irish hopes cast in bronze
The European Indoor Championships in Gothenburg were just the thing to put the smile back on the face of Irish athletics. Not simply because of the bronze medal-winning performances from Ciarán ó Lionáird and Fionnuala Britton but because a strong team showing saw us finish 13th in the placing table, usually the best indication of overall performance.
That put Ireland ahead of Holland, Turkey, Belgium, Portugal, Greece and Finland, strong nations who normally do better than us. The achievement of Ciara Everard in reaching the final of the women's 800m was a notable step forward for the 22-year-old Kilkenny runner but it's the two medallists who naturally hogged most of the limelight.
Britton's gradual but apparently inexorable progress towards becoming a National Sweetheart continued with a performance in the 3,000m which was even more gutsy than usual, something which scarcely seemed possible. Given her forté is cross-country and that she's moved up as far as 10,000m on the track, 3,000m was always going to be a challenge. But a slow pace which effectively turned the race into a 1,500m should have ruled her out.
Instead the Wicklow Warrior produced a remarkable effort which earned her bronze and brought her within a couple of feet of silver. That she outsprinted Elena Korobkina of Russia who has a 4:06.73 PB for 1,500m compared to Britton's 4:13.96. and almost overhauled Corinna Harrer of Germany, a two-minute flat 800m performer, shows the extent of her achievement and the strength of her will. There was a sense on that final lap that she simply refused to accept fourth place.
Personality-wise Ciarán ó Lionáird comes across as a polar opposite to the quietly-spoken Britton. It's almost as if he was created by a computer fed a diet of Hollywood movies about quirky maverick sportsmen; Without Limits, The Jericho Mile, Downhill Racer and the like. Which makes him just the kind of character Irish athletics needs.
His bronze medal in the 3,000m completed a remarkable recovery from the disastrous injury-hampered Olympic campaign which ended with ó Lionáird apparently announcing his retirement as he suffered a near breakdown at the finish line. He's battled back bravely since with a superb third place in the Millrose Games mile of 3:52.10 suggesting something special might be on the cards in Gothenburg. His third place confirmed that and sets him up for the rest of the season.
For Britton, the World Cross-Country Championships loom. There's no doubt she'll be in the best shape of her life in Poland on March 24 yet the challenge awaiting her is monumental. Nine out of the top ten finishers in the last championship two years ago were African. So when I hear people talking about possible success in Bydgoszcz I feel like counselling extreme caution. Even a great-hearted competitor like Britton will be up against it.
You have to go back to 2002, when Paula Radcliffe won gold, for the last European medallist in the women's cross-country race. The venue? Dublin. Who knows, maybe it's an omen.