independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Athletics: The lessons from Berlin

YOU have to wonder what athletics' international governing body -- the IAAF -- was thinking.

Two years ago, when Brisbane, Split, Casablanca and Madrid were among the cities vying to host the 2011 World T&F Championships they plumped for, er, Daegu?

A stop-start sport like athletics depends hugely on a lively atmosphere and home-crowd enthusiasm but Korea -- where soccer and baseball are king -- makes Ireland look like an athletics Superpower.

They had 20 athletes in Berlin and their best finisher was 14th in the women's long jump.

Ireland, with only 14 entrants, had four top-10 finishers and finished 23rd on the placing tables (of 205 countries, based on top-eight finishes).

Despite Usain Bolt going global in Berlin, and an attendance of over half a million over nine days, global track athletics next goes to Korea, the equivalent of taking the world surfing championships to Ulan Bator.

The IAAF did show some sense last week though by deciding to only run the World Cross-Countries every second year from 2010.

Why? Because even their decision to introduce short-course races in 1998 -- the equivalent of having 'egg 'n' spoon' races in the school sports to give the weaker kids a chance -- couldn't break the Africans' stranglehold. They just won all the short-course events as well, which were jettisoned in 2006.

Learning from your mistakes is always a good thing so here are five lessons that the IAAF, and Irish athletics, can learn from the 12th World T&F Championships:

1 Following a strong recent Cork sporting trend, Derval O'Rourke is another inspirational, world-class star.

Given that she's got a post-grad in business we could probably throw the national debt at her and her sheer pertinacity and bottle would solve it quicker than our dopey Dail ditherers.

Stripped of her reputation, her sponsors and half her government grant, O'Rourke had the chutzpah to ditch a one-year failed cross-channel experiment last autumn.

You don't finish fourth in the world without talent or quality coaching, and in two former Irish champions (husband and wife team Sean Cahill and Terri Horgan) she is well served, and both of them getting not a penny for it.

Above all, O'Rourke proves that a voracious appetite for work, and a matching mental fortitude, especially on the big occasion, can overcome sub-standard government funding and facilities.

In both Moscow and Berlin, she produced season bests in qualifying and Irish records in her finals.

If Alistair Cragg or Deirdre Ryan could replicate her dogged spirit and consistency, their talents might be maximised.

2 If Usain Bolt ever fails a drugs test, international athletics may as well permanently pull the plug.

With a drug-addled history undermining it, Bolt is the desperately needed boost that athletics needs, not just for his warp-speed feats of 9.58 and 19.19, but because his incremental progress indicates that he is 'clean'.

Just as importantly, his disarming personality (he and Asafa Powell were apparently chasing a spider around the call-room before the 100m final) has put the fun back to a sport over-run by solemn-faced automatons for whom showing emotion was a weakness.

In Berlin, even the usually humble Ethiopians and Kenyans took to pre-race face-pulling and post-win dancing! With his camera-loving, 'kidult' personality, Bolt brings youth appeal to athletics, which, for his sport, is unique and makes him a global 'crossover' star.

3 Sometimes, athletes rise above all the crap, but only if inured by a strong individual set-up that takes years to establish.

Twelve months of in-fighting, between their own boardroom, and with the Irish Sports Council, has sullied Athletics Ireland's reputation and efficacy, though, equally, shouldn't ex-Sports Minister John O'Donoghue be hauled up before an Oireachtas Committee and lambasted for his disgusting wastage of taxpayers' money?

Olive Loughnane (silver medal), O'Rourke (fourth), David Gillick (sixth), Paul Hession (10th) and Robert Heffernan (15th) all thrived despite it and underlined their world-class status here. Kilkenny's Joanne Cuddihy (400m) will also be back for next year's Europeans in Barcelona so their future looks bright.

It is unfair to say that Athletics Ireland has not contributed to their success but they are now mature athletes whose personalised 'systems' are strong enough to succeed without AAI.

Many of the rest of Ireland's Berlin competitors, and the upcoming talent don't have that yet. It is high time Athletics Ireland got a strong 'Director of Athletics' (a post vacant since the Olympics) to make some necessary interventions and hard calls.

Like, should athletes who are clearly off form, or injured, still go to major championships? Should age/experience also be a selection criteria?

Fionnuala Britton opted, personally, not to go to Berlin because she wasn't running well enough; an admirable decision which others might be wise enough to ape in future.

4 Hallelujah, the Ethiopians are fallible! Their men won just three medals on the track and two of those were Bekele's 5,000/10,000m golden double. Their women, admittedly without Tirunesh Dibaba, won just three also and no golds, compared to Kenya's five (two golds).

The problem for Kenya, who won four men's medals, is that they are repeatedly losing medals to other countries in the increasingly and disturbingly mercenary distance-game.

Youssef Kamel, who took 1,500m gold and 800m bronze for Burundi, was Kenya's Gregory Konchellah up until 2003 and is the son of two-time world 800m champion Billy Konchellah while USA's defending double-champion Bernard Lagat, who had to settle for silver and bronze this time, is also a Kenyan native.

5 An irresistible mascot always helps. Berlino the Bear was the only two-legged creature in Berlin more hyperactive, entertaining and controversial than Insane Bolt.

He did the archer pose with Bolt and tore his vest off with local discus champion, Robert Harting, who somehow managed to throw him over his shoulder. When giving Jamaican hurdle champion Melanie Walker a piggyback on her lap of honour he smacked straight into the hurdles cart -- already a YouTube classic.

Rumour has it that the IAAF told him to reel in his enthusiasm when he had the temerity to run alongside the men's 10,000m finalists, egging them on. Berlino, like Bolt, put the craic back into athletics and was funnier, faster and smarter than your average bear. But when the second most recognisable person at your World Championships is an eight-foot sponge mascot with a non-speaking part, your sport still has an image problem.

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