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Irish aim to buck trend in Barcelona

AS THE European Championships started in earnest in Barcelona this morning, Ireland has won only 10 medals in 52 years -- and half of them, remarkably, were won by Sonia O'Sullivan alone.

However, with the Caribbean and African invasions driving world sprinting and distance-running standards skyward, the European Championships represent Ireland's best chance of gaining podium finishes in a major event.

Team manager Patsy McGonagle has stuck his neck out, saying "two medals and five to six finalists" is the target for this large Irish contingent.

World silver medallist Olive Loughnane is clearly a main contender but Cork's Robert Heffernan (Togher) finished fourth in this morning's 20km walk, which also included Jamie Costin, who dropped down from his usual 50km.

Sixth in the 2007 World Championships and eighth at the last Olympics, Heffernan is ranked seventh this season but was second behind top-ranked Alex Schwazer (Italy) earlier this year.

As he regularly trains in Spain, Heffernan hoped to garner some local support along today's city-centre course.

Eleven of Ireland's 33-strong team are in action on the opening day.

Brona Furlong, who won an All-Ireland with Wexford, quit camogie to concentrate on 400m hurdles and is one of three Irish in today's heats, along with Michelle Carey and new national champion Justine Kinney, a Cambridge native and Loughborough-based athlete who recently declared for Ireland.

Newbridge's Rose-Anne Galligan (22) lowered her PB to 2:02.39 in May but her second 800m heat features four sub-two-minute runners and only eight go through from all three heats.

Ferrybank's Kelly Proper (22) is another senior outdoor debutant, who will need to improve her season-best 6.41m to get through long-jump qualifying.

History-making Paralympian Jason Smyth (10.32) would do really well to qualify from the last 100m heat, which includes France's new sub-10-second man Christophe Lemaitre.

Thomas Chamney, Rory Chesser (both 1500m) and Joanne Cuddihy (400m) were expected to race today, but have gone straight through to the semi-finals after their heats were cancelled.