Thursday 29 September 2016

Vincent Hogan: McCormack's sense of outrage needs to echo through her sport for athletics to have a future that radiates any real credibility

Published 11/07/2016 | 02:30

Fionnuala McCormack shows her disappointment after finishing fourth at the European Championships. Photo: Sportsfile
Fionnuala McCormack shows her disappointment after finishing fourth at the European Championships. Photo: Sportsfile

For someone so slight you'd imagine a stiff breeze might blow her over, that raised voice of Fionnuala McCormack sure sent a welcome peal of thunder rolling through the murmuring shadows of athletics.

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She was incandescent with anger and didn't hide it. Confronted by a lie, Fionnuala did not simply meet it with a melancholy shrug and some mumbled philosophical cliché about learning from life's bad experiences. She went to war. Heaven help us, she even resorted to use of the F-word in articulating frustration at finishing fourth in yet another major championship race.

And her venom was wholly justified.

She'd come home the length of the Amsterdam straight behind a human illusion in the European 10,000m final. That is behind a Turkish athlete who wasn't from Turkey, who wasn't even from Europe. Someone competing under a different name to that which she answered to for the first 18 years of her life.

The gold medal was won by Vivian Jemutai, a 19-year-old Kenyan who still lives in Kenya and trains in Kenya. That's not what history will tell us, though. History will record a win for someone called Yasemin Can from Turkey.

A girl born at the age of 18.

McCormack furiously railed against the hypocrisy of such opportunism, describing the IAAF's regulations for transfers of allegiance as "a joke". Now you may argue that the Irish team bound for Rio next month will itself be occupied by a few athletes for whom the Irish tricolour represents a flag of convenience, but if that isn't McCormack's call, why should it muzzle her?

The athlete previously known as Vivian Jemutai has, incidentally, qualified for both the 5,000m and 10,000m at next month's Olympics in Rio. This 'Turk' is on the rise.

So there was something refreshing about McCormack's anger, flying in the face, as it did, of a history of our athletes being somehow institutionalised against implying anything untoward about even the most dubious of opponents. And, face it, Track and Field could do with more righteous anger these days.

It could certainly so with more athletes stating the obvious rather than pretending the sport they commit their lives to is being run from some kind of gingerbread house.

Would athletics not be in a better place now if more competitors raised their voices? Would the sport not be cleaner, if a mere suspicion of dishonesty was enough to have athletes socially ostracised? If more clean athletes followed the example of, say, American Nick Symmonds, speaking out more stridently against dirty ones?

This isn't, incidentally, to imply any such impropriety in the case of the girl called Yasemin Can. There is no evidence to suggest she runs on anything other than talent. It's just the vest she wears that's lying.

Streak

Funny, in her Irish Times column last week, Sonia O'Sullivan took to lauding the independent streak shown by Rory McIlroy in opting out of the Rio Olympics, suggesting it revealed something that other Irish athletes might profitably replicate. But did she herself practise what she is now preaching?

"Individuality must shine through," wrote Sonia. "And you must be able to go against the grain, do everything possible to maintain the routine and structure that has got you here. It means being brave and thinking about yourself and what is best for you, and you don't always need social media to show that."

Sonia is Ireland's most successful athlete, yet one absolutely blackguarded by cheats in her prime.

It was confirmed last February that the Chinese runners who left her in their wake at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart were part of a state-sponsored doping programme. But, then again, few people had much doubt what they were looking at 23 years ago.

Turtle soup was supposedly the key to Ma Junren's robotic 'army', a regimented batallion of women who ran in strict formation, hands down by their sides "as if carrying a shopping bag in each arm" as Sonia herself described them. They arrived out of the blue and, medals won over a condensed period of two years, promptly disappeared again back into invisibility in their homeland.

When confirmation of the rotten genesis of their success came her way this year, Sonia's response was a simple "I was never angry and still don't feel anger".

I read those words with incredulity. Surely anger is the only appropriate response to theft? Is Track and Field not in the mess it is in today precisely because not enough athletes articulate a sense of outrage?

The idea that Rob Heffernan getting an email last March from the Court of Arbitration in Sport, confirming his right to a bronze medal in London four years ago, can in any way compensate for his exclusion from a rightful place on the Olympic podium is simply absurd. Similarly, Olive Loughnane getting a World Championship gold seven years after that 20km walk in Berlin.

Both were victims of a grand betrayal. Both should be absolutely, utterly furious.

Time was when the athletics programme was centrepiece of any Olympic programme, but these days it all but belongs in a circus Big Top. Why? Because it has been run for decades by the IAAF, an organisation that, we now know, was itself immersed in a grand deceit.

And an absence of any real public belief in Track and Field today is the legacy of that deceit.

In Amsterdam this past week, competitors were compelled to wear the 'I run clean' slogan on their vests in a comedic gesture trumpeted by officials as signal of "a new beginning for athletics". "A PR stunt" as McCormack so rightly put it. Think of that slogan in the context of IAAF president Seb Coe's behaviour while the great, ugly wart that is Russian athletics was being exposed by German television last year.

The exposure, he said, represented "a declaration of war" on his sport. Back then, he was still peering out haughtily over those spectacles at a questioning world with that familiar expression of practised disdain for having to communicate with society's unwashed. That would change, of course. But the police had yet to make their arrests.

Imagine what it must be like to invest so much of your life into a sport run so abjectly? A sport run with so little discernible connection to its own community, let alone any palpable appetite, gimmicks apart, from re-assuring the honest athlete that their way is the right way.

Radar

I very much doubt Coe knows much about Fionnuala McCormack, so it's highly unlikely that her raised voice in Amsterdam last week will even register on his radar. But Turkey's team for the Europeans contained seven Kenyans, two Jamaicans, one Ethiopian, one Cuban, one South African, an Azerbaijani and a Ukrainian.

Is the IAAF really that ambivalent about the transfers of allegiance it facilitates not to sense something grotesquely out of kilter here? Or do they care as little about this as they seemed to care (until recently) about that stench rising out of Russia?

Fionnuala McCormack won't get any thanks for last week's outburst and there will even be the odd dimwit who accuses her of "sour grapes". Just imagine the audacity of a relatively low-profile athlete articulating a sense of outrage? Much less an Irish one?

Her sport could do with more like her.

Irish Independent

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