Our finest 'failures'
SOMETIME during next year's Beijing Olympics, as our runners shamefully fail to outclass the Americans, the Kenyans and the Ethiopians, Bill O'Herlihy will turn to Gerry Kiernan and Eamon Coghlan and say, "Well gentlemen, what's wrong with Irish athletics?"
What Gerry and Eamon will probably be too polite to but probably should say is, "not a lot Bill." (I'm not picking on the great O'Herlihy here, I've written my share of doom laden obituaries for Irish athletics myself.) Irish athletics is, in fact, chalking up its fair share of triumphs. It's just that we're not paying enough attention.
Last month, for example, Wicklow's Fionnuala Britton finished second in the European U23 Cross Country Championships. That particular race had been singled out beforehand by the European Athletics Association as the most competitive of the championships and Britton hadn't been mentioned as a potential contender. Yet she battled through for silver to be rewarded with almost complete public indifference.
This wasn't the first time we've enjoyed success in those particular championships. The year before last our Junior men took the bronze medal.
Our response in the national media? One newspaper's Team Of The Week went to The Underdogs who had won some kind of Mickey Mouse reality television event the same weekend.
I shouldn't really have to stress the genuine quality of what Fionnuala Britton and the junior cross country team achieved. They were taking on the best athletes in Europe, athletes from far bigger countries who, in some cases, enjoy far better state support and facilities. Behind them were the cream of Russia, Germany, England, Italy and Spain.
If our soccer team so much as qualify for a European Championships they're heroes
It's bizarre, when you think of it, that our athletes get tarred with the brush of failure because they fail to win Olympic medals. If our soccer team, after all, so much as qualify for a European Championships then they're heroes. Yet, even after Derval O'Rourke's heroics last year, there were a few begrudgers eager to focus on the fact that in her subsequent Grand Prix events she finished down the field. Mere European success isn't enough for some people, at least not when it comes to athletics.
The magnificent Ms O'Rourke is our most notable success story at the moment, but she is just the latest in a recent series of fine achievements at international level. You probably haven't noticed how well we've been doing of late so perhaps a recap of the past five years is in order.
In 2002 a team led by Sonia O'Sullivan won bronze in the World Cross Country Championships. Later that year the Cobh wonder herself took silver in both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the European Championships while Karen Shinkins won bronze in the European Indoors. In 2003 Gillian O'Sullivan won silver in the 20km Walk at the World Championships (an achievement which should have won her every sports personality of the year award going, but didn't.) Paul McKee won a thrilling bronze at the 400m in the World Indoor Championships the same year, the women's cross country team of Sonia O'Sullivan, Rosemary Ryan, Ann Keenan-Buckley and Catherina McKiernan won silver in the European Championships. 5,000m runner Robert Connolly won bronze in the European U23 Championships while Joanne Cuddihy took silver in the 400m at the ultra-competitive European Juniors. Galway's Paul Hession won bronze in the 200m at the World Student Games. Oh, and another walker, Ann Loughnane, won a terrific silver in the World Youth Championships.
2004 was a bit quieter because of a paucity of major championships but the 4 x 400m relay team of Rob Daly, Gary Ryan, David Gillick and David McCarthy made history by becoming our most successful practitioners of the baton changing art when they took bronze in the World Indoor Championships.
In 2005 we struck double gold in the European Indoors through David Gillick in the 400m and Alistair Cragg in the 3,000m. There was also a gold and silver in the European Juniors for 1500m runners Colin Costello from Meath and Danny Darcy from Carlow, a truly remarkable result which went almost unremarked. At the World Student Games, Hession took bronze in the 200m, Ailis McSweeney a silver in the 100m, Jolene Byrne a bronze in the 5000m and Derval O'Rourke bronze in the 100m hurdles. O'Rourke and McSweeney then combined with Anna Boyle and Emily Maher for bronze in the 4 x 100m relay. There were also those bronze medals for the juniors in the European cross country.
Last year people did sit up and take notice when O'Rourke followed World Indoor gold with European silver. And Fionnuala Britton, as we've noted before, finished the year in style.
Yet the illusion that Irish athletics is in crisis continues to hold sway. The fear of more media mockery may even account for last week's decision by the Olympic Council of Ireland only to send athletes who've achieved the A qualifying standard to Beijing. Most other countries will accept the B qualifying standards, but not Ireland. It's hard to know why this is so, we're not exactly short of the few bob for air fares and accommodation. The achievement of even a B standard denotes a level of athletic excellence which most of the country's sportsmen could only dream of. It should be recognised. But the OCI, for reasons of their own, continue to take the miserly route. In the case of the marathon they've even imposed their own qualifying time which is more stringent than even the International Olympic Committee's A standard.
Jerry Kiernan, whose top ten finish in the 1984 marathon in Los Angeles was a good example of what can be gained by taking a chance on athletes who at first sight don't look the most obvious Olympic contenders, is up in arms about this. And quite right too. As Kiernan pointed out, the bronze medal winner in the last Olympics ran a slower time than the one being demanded of Irish runners merely to qualify. And, of course, John Treacy hadn't run a marathon at all before his silver medal run.
The next time you're tempted to wonder out loud why we're sending athletes who get knocked out in the early stages of major championships, think of Derval O'Rourke. She competed in several major championships without distinction before making her breakthrough and that experience must have stood her in good stead when push came to shove last summer.
So let's praise our athletes instead of burying them. Unlike our rugby players, whose sport has only limited global appeal, or our hurlers and footballers who never have to face international competition, they have to take on the whole world. And you know something? They're not doing that bad a job of it.