Thursday 21 September 2017

Running to stand still

Change needed as Irish athletics struggles to keep pace at highest level

Ireland athletes Thomas Barr, Brian Gregan and David Gillick of Ireland reacts after after the Men's 4 x 400m Final on day five of the 23rd European Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland athletes Thomas Barr, Brian Gregan and David Gillick of Ireland reacts after after the Men's 4 x 400m Final on day five of the 23rd European Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Every man has his breaking point, and on a Wednesday afternoon in late March, a key figure in Irish athletics reached his. It arrived in the form of an email, a written announcement from Jeremy Lyons that he was stepping away from all Athletics Ireland activities after several years on their High Performance committee, his plans to enact change having fallen on deaf ears.

That was also the day Paul McNamara was announced as High Performance Director, and it came just a few weeks after the Irish team had an especially dismal showing at the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade.

Jeremy Lyons with his athlete Craig Lynch, who won the national indoor 60m title last year
Jeremy Lyons with his athlete Craig Lynch, who won the national indoor 60m title last year

To suggest either of those were the cause for Lyons' resignation, however, would be misleading, because frustrations had been simmering for months, and he's not alone.

George Bernard Shaw once said the mark of a truly intelligent person is to be moved by statistics, and if that's true then the following should rattle those in Athletics Ireland to life.

Cycle

In the four Olympic cycles from Sydney 2000 to London 2012, Ireland consistently had between eight and 10 world-class athletes, defined as someone who finished top 16 at a senior global championship. During the last cycle, from 2013-2016, there were just three: Robert Heffernan, Thomas Barr and Mark English.

While it's a stretch to say something is rotten with the state of Irish athletics, there's certainly a faint whiff of decay.

Membership figures may have trebled over the last decade, but as anyone who's checked the music charts knows, popularity and quality are two very different things.

Truth is, we have more people running than ever, but at the highest level we're going backwards.

Lyons, who coaches some of Ireland's top sprinters, sees an obvious cause and, indeed, solution.

"Coaching drives everything and there's no genuine investment in coaching," he says.

"It needs a radical rethink into where we're focusing. A high-performance programme needs a coach at its centre and we don't have that in our model."

As a European Indoor medallist, Mary Cullen knows plenty about high performance, but when it comes to her association this is a song she's heard before.

"It's a continuous vicious cycle," she says. "People go in, try to change things and come out saying they're banging their head against a brick wall."

For McNamara to succeed, Cullen believes he must avoid the same approach as his predecessor, Kevin Ankrom.

"Communication will have to step up big time," she says. "You have to have a relationship with athletes, know what they want and need.

"There was never any communication with Kevin. Any time there was he'd step in for selection issues and try to dictate things when he knew nothing about your past for so long before."

McNamara knows all this, though having been handed the baton by Ankrom he's developed a new-found appreciation for what the American achieved in his six-year tenure.

"Kevin possibly didn't communicate to others what he did behind the scenes, but it was an enormous amount of work in terms of policies and procedures," he says.

Though McNamara doesn't necessarily agree that standards are regressing - pointing to an above-average showing at the Rio Olympics - he agrees coaching is an area of concern, given the 145 carded athletes are spread across 127 coaches, all essentially volunteers working for a system that offers scant reward.

"The sport would collapse if our volunteer coaches walked away, so there's no denying the sport is absolutely dependent on them," he says.

"We need to support them and help them advance, but all this takes place against finite resources, so we're going to have to be creative."

Ideally, says Lyons, Ireland should recruit at least three full-time, world-class coaches, who should be given total autonomy in their area of expertise.

"That's what happened in the UK before London 2012. All these young coaches shadowed experts like Dan Pfaff and the legacy is they now have this generation of skilled coaches."

That, however, would require a six-figure investment, which remains unrealistic with the current budget.

"You have to bring in a system of coaches, and if we don't have the funds, then why don't we?" asks David Campbell, a retired Irish international who is lead physio at Nike's Oregon Track Club.

"There must be 1,000 road races in Ireland every year; why aren't we ring-fencing money around increased participation towards high performance? We need top-level coaches to develop our athletes and if we don't, we're in trouble."

It's a thought echoed by Colin Griffin, a two-time Olympian who believes athletes also need to seize the initiative themselves.

"We have world-class facilities," he says. "We used to always complain about that, but we can't any more so now it's about having good quality people. Athletes or coaches shouldn't wait around for some magic system, they should get as far as they can themselves because these extra half per cents only make a difference if you're operating close to 100pc already."

Ciarán Ó Lionáird, a world 1500m finalist in 2011, believes more Irish athletes need to train together.

"It's very fragmented, athletes split with different groups," he says. "We need everybody under one system, one coach. That way, you can drive funding towards a plan.

Slipping "You look at Belgrade and the standard is slipping. There is a mentality that just getting there is good. I'd introduce leaders at a young age so they learn those good habits early - give them an understanding of what it takes to be really, really good."

It's something McNamara hopes to work towards, though these first few weeks have been spent listening to the Irish athletics community, which Lyons feels is a positive start, even if there's a long way to go before the current trend is reversed.

"If Paul opens up dialogue, listens to people's ideas and comes up with a plan for two or four years where we aspire to have three full-time coaches, it would be great, but I didn't see that and I wouldn't be optimistic," he says.

"I could be wrong. I hope I'm wrong."

Irish Independent

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