Athletics: Irish hoping to shine in shadow of London
FORMER British decathlete and pundit Dean Macey articulated the views of many recently when he described the shoehorning of the European Athletics Championships into the same summer as an Olympic Games as a "crackpot" idea.
But that's exactly what's happening this week because the European Athletics Association (EAA) believe more regular championships will increase their sport's popularity. They have just gone from a four to a two-year cycle and their latest championships begin in Helsinki today and run until Sunday.
Macey argued that the proximity of the Europeans to the Olympics will not only weaken the fields but devalue any medals won because they will be completely overshadowed by what happens in London in a month's time.
"It's like parking an old banger next to a Ferrari. It's got four wheels and it'll get you from A to B, but I know which one I'd rather be in," he quipped.
It is perhaps a little easier for the British to be glib because European medals are not a novelty for them; they took home 19 from Barcelona in 2010.
However, since 1958 Irish athletes have only ever won 11 and this is the level that represents Ireland's best chance of any medals. Derval O'Rourke has won two (both silver), including one in 2010, when Robert Heffernan was next best with two fourth places in the walks.
But with the Olympics just around the corner, there are no walks or marathons in this year's programme and O'Rourke, like several others such as Deirdre Ryan, Alistair Cragg and Ciaran O'Lionaird, is skipping the Europeans to concentrate on peaking for the Olympics.
Sprinters like Jason Smyth and Steven Colvert, still chasing Olympic qualification, are hoping to get it in Finland, while others who have already qualified such as Fionnuala Britton and Mark Kenneally are using the Europeans to prepare for the Games.
A tougher high performance attitude within Athletics Ireland (AAI) saw them hardening the qualifying standards, making the official EAA mark their 'B' standard and setting their own 'A' standard.
Their new philosophy is to send 'development' athletes on the 'B' standard. But Rory Chesser (25) from Ennis, who recovered from injury and illness this year to achieve the 1,500m 'B' standard three times, has highlighted some inconsistencies in the selection process.
He and Brian Murphy (29), who is included in the 4x400m team, lodged appeals against their non-selection and lost, apparently because they're not regarded as being 'development' athletes, but AAI were left with red faces when their names appeared in official EAA start-lists anyway.
Disgruntled Irish athletes have one consolation: they don't, like some countries, face Olympic trials capable of throwing up massive shocks.
For instance, 400m star Jeremy Wariner failed to make the top three at the USA's trials last weekend and Allyson Felix had a dead heat for third place in the 100m, which will now be decided by a run-off or a coin toss.
Macey's prediction that these European fields will be considerably weakened is not quite accurate. Mo Farah is defending his 5,000m title and the sprints include French superstar Christian Lemaitre and Churandy Martina, a fourth-placed Olympian.
Britton's switch from steeplechase to 10,000m, in which she ran the fourth fastest time ever by an Irish woman (31:29) earlier this year, makes her Ireland's standout medal chance.
Joanne Cuddihy is another serious prospect and there are several more potential finalists, including pole-vaulter Tori Pena.
Of the 'development' athletes, watch out for Brian Gregan, a European U-23 400m silver medallist last year, and Waterford siblings Jessie and Thomas Barr, two rising 400m hurdlers who made European finals at U-23 and Junior (U-20) level respectively in 2011.
IRISH IN ACTION TODAY
Morning - Amy Foster, Women's 100m heats, 8am (Irish time); Thomas Barr and Jason Harvey, Men's 400m heats, 8.50am; Jason Smyth, Men's 100m heats, 9.40am; Brian Gregan, Men's 400m heats, 11.35am; Jessie Barr, Women's 400m heats, 12.30pm; Joanne Cuddihy, Women's 400m heats, 3.50pm; *Amy Foster, Women's 100m semi-final, 6.05pm; *Jason Smyth, Men's 100m semi-final, 6.20pm *subject to qualification
RTE 2 will broadcast evening sessions live from tomorrow. There will also be live streaming on eurovision.digotel.com/ea