Getting set for bright future
Irish athletes head to this week's European Championships in an optimistic mood, writes Marie Crowe
W hen Gareth Devlin surveys the Irish team at this week's European Athletics Championships in Barcelona, he is filled with hope. Despite a string of disappointments on the international stage and a barrage of negative publicity surrounding Athletics Ireland, he can see the tide is turning.
Irish athletes are making their mark again and among the team of 33 in Barcelona this week, serious ambitions are harboured that five are genuine medal contenders, and a further six are thought of as outsiders. Times have indeed changed.
And over that time, there has been a shift too from our perceived strength -- middle and long-distance running -- to the shorter disciplines. Ireland has become a nation of sprinters. So much so that our sprinters now compete at world and Olympic level. Paul Hession, David Gillick and Derval O'Rourke are all in with a shot at a title this week but the transition didn't begin with them.
The first breakthrough came 15 years ago when the Ireland team began to qualify on the sprint relay circuit. A handful of technical coaches had worked with a group of athletes and as they moved up through the ranks and developed, so did the coaches.
"Now we have a network of good sprint coaches in the country and also I think that Ireland now realises that they can compete at sprints not just at European level but at world level," says Devlin, Athletics Ireland's high performance manager. "And people like Gillick, Hession and O'Rourke have proven that they are not superhuman people. They are incredibly determined in what they can do and that shows the lads coming behind them that it is possible to achieve. These people are ground-breakers and it makes it much easier for others to follow.
"There has been a fall-off in Irish long distance but there are external elements that have to be looked at. Over the last decade long-distance running has really moved on with the dominance of the Africans. There are some very good non-African athletes but they get blown away at the highest level. If you look at Europe, most of the countries concentrate on the technical events because that's where they can compete."
Already this year David Gillick has run below 45 seconds in the 400m five times. The Dubliner took gold earlier this month at the Barcelona Grand Prix in a time of 44.95 on the same track he will run on at this championship. Hession, currently ranked fifth in Europe going into the meet, and O'Rourke, who finished fourth in last year's World Championships in Berlin, also carry high expectations.
Joining Gillick, Hession and O'Rourke on the list of medal hopefuls are walkers Olive Loughnane, already, of course, a world silver medalist, and Robert Heffernan.
Athletics Ireland has been criticised for toughening its qualifying standards for the championships, for setting the bar too high. But with 33 athletes qualified, team coach Patsy McGonagle feels that upping the ante has paid dividends.
"The strength in depth of the team competing this week shows the level of talent we have in Ireland and shows what we are capable of," he says.
Many team members competing in Barcelona are part of a younger generation of athletes for whom this week is a big step in their progression towards London 2012. The likes of Niamh Whelan, Brian Gregan and Roseanne Galligan, who will gain serious experience from competing at this level, all have the next Olympics in their sights. "For many of the younger athletes, competing at such a level is vital for their progression to London and overall preparation," says McGonagle.
Westmeath native Mark Christie, for example, will compete in the 5000m. The 25-year-old is hoping to gain vital experience against a higher calibre of athlete and if all goes to plan he believes he could reach the final.
"Right now, I'm ranked somewhere around the middle of the field but I hope to run well and make the final. My last few training sessions and hard runs have gone well so I'm feeling confident and ready for the challenge. This championship is a stepping stone between Beijing and London and I have outlined it as major step in qualifying for the London games."
Sprinter Jason Smyth proved his fitness for the championships by clocking up times of 10.41 and 10.43 at a meeting in France last week. Smyth, who has a personal best of 10.32, had not raced for over a month because of a hamstring injury and is delighted to regain form.
Temperatures in Barcelona could hit highs of 40 degrees and most of the athletes travelled to Spain early to acclimatise. But Smyth could be counted one of the lucky ones, having done his winter training in Florida.
"The heat is not much of a problem," he agrees. "It's a bit more normal for me because it's what I'm used to. Everybody finds it hot but I'm able to cope with it a bit more, it's what I've been training in."
One of the newest members of the team is Tori Pena, the Californian-born pole vaulter who only declared for Ireland in recent months. Pena has a best of 4.35m and holds the Irish record of 4.15m which she set at this year's national championships. Still only 22, she holds dual Irish-American citizenship as her grandmother hails from Derry.
"Declaring for Ireland gives me a great opportunity to compete at such a high level and gain competitive experience," says Pena. "I hope to compete well and set a new Irish record this week. It's been a dream for me to represent Ireland."