Monday 19 March 2018

Athletes can dare to dream

The European Championships, which begin in Barcelona the day after tomorrow, are the ones Irish athletics has been waiting for.

Last year in Berlin, our athletes finally seemed to reach their full potential at a major championships. There was a magnificent world silver medal in the 20km walk for Olive Loughnane and Derval O'Rourke's fourth in the 100m hurdles and David Gillick's sixth in the 400m made them the top European finishers. It seemed Barcelona could hardly come around fast enough.

Now the time has come and Irish athletics has a rare chance to seize the national sporting imagination. Being the top European in the world championships is fine and dandy but nothing says success to the public like a place on the podium.

If Gillick and O'Rourke translate their World Championship form into European gold, the effect on the sport in this country of those medals would be enormous. They would represent the difference between performances which earn the respect of the aficionado and ones which take their place in the national pantheon.

Take Paul Hession, for example. Reaching the World and Olympic semi-finals over 200m was an excellent showing by the Athenry man but in the eyes of the wider public he remained something of an also-ran. It's not fair, but that's the way it is. A medal in Barcelona would change that. It would provide posterity with concrete proof of Hession's achievement. Success in Berlin was measured in terms of being able to compete with the very best. This time around, it's all about medals.

Those medals will not be easy to win. They never have been. Since the first European Championships in 1934, Ireland has picked up a grand total of 10 medals, three gold, five silver and two bronze. We're 28th in the table, just behind Denmark (12) and the Czech Republic (11). This haul looks even less impressive when you consider that half those medals, and all the golds, were won by the phenomenon which was Sonia O'Sullivan -- gold over 3,000m in 1994, golds over 5,000m and 10,000m in 1998 and silver in those same two events in 2002. Without the wonder woman from Cobh, the cupboard would look distinctly bare.

We've never found the championships easy. Sonia's gold in 1994 was our first medal since Eamon Coghlan's silver medal in the 1978 1,500m. And the 1998 championships in Budapest was the only time when more than one Irish athlete made the podium thanks to Mark Carroll's battling bronze in the 5,000m. Though, thanks to Derval O'Rourke's silver in the 100m hurdles last time out, it's 1990 since we came back empty-handed.

This time round, one medal is essential, two would be excellent and three would make it the best championships in our history. Anything above that and you're in fantasy land. Yet it says something about the current state of Irish athletics that we will have six competitors with a medal chance.

Gillick is perhaps our outstanding prospect. There is every possibility that on Friday night we could finally see a male Irish athlete winning European gold, an achievement which eluded the likes of Coghlan, John Treacy and Ronnie Delany.

Gillick has four main rivals, the young Belgian Jonathan Borlee, who is the fastest in Europe this year but lacks major championship experience, the Dubliner's training partner Martyn Rooney who made the Olympic final two years ago and has the long-term potential to challenge the Americans in this event, another Briton Michael Bingham, who made the world final last year, and Leslie Djhone of France, much slower than the other four this year but a consummate competitor who has finished fifth in the worlds and the Olympics in the past and took bronze in Gothenburg four years ago.

On his day, Gillick, ranked No 2 in Europe this year, can beat all of them. On their day, they can all beat him. He could be first or he could be fifth. But there should be a medal of some colour there for him.

Olive Loughnane came in under the radar last year when all the focus was on the track. That's how it goes for race walkers. But her world medal at the age of 34 showed her ferocity as a major championship competitor. She'd need a shotgun to stop Olga Kaniskina, the great Russian who is one of only three athletes going for a triple crown of successive Olympic, World and European titles (the other two are her fellow 20km walker and countryman Valeriy Borchin and the Norwegian javelin thrower Andreas Thorkildsen).

But the Cork-based Galway woman is ranked eighth in Europe this season and five of those ahead of her are from Russia, who'll only be permitted three competitors at the championships. She will be in the shake-up, keeping an eye out for Portugal's Vera Santos, fifth in Berlin, and for home favourite Beatriz Pascual, who recently defeated her in La Coruna.

Derval O'Rourke is the consummate Irish competitor at major championships. She appeared completely out of the frame going into the worlds and ended up just inches away from taking a medal. Above all, she is a racer, someone with the knack of negotiating the gruelling series of qualifying rounds and finding her best form in the final. That's how she took silver four years ago and a World Indoor title before that and it's why her current ranking (11th) in Europe can probably be disregarded.

With injury doubts hanging over reigning champion Susanna Kallur of Sweden, Germany's Carolin Nytra, who has made a big jump this season from 12.78 to 12.57 to challenge Lolo Jones at the top of the world rankings, should be favourite. But the other athletes who've run considerably faster than O'Rourke this season, the likes of Russia's Tatyana Dektyareva and Nevin Yanit of Turkey, don't have the Cork woman's major championship record. It might be asking a bit much for O'Rourke to surprise us all again but the possibility is there.

Those are the probables. Now to the possibles. This is certainly Paul Hession's big chance. Young French sensation Christoph Lemaitre seems certain to take gold in the 200m while Norwegian, since 2006, Jaysuma Saidy Ndure, from Gambia, looks a good bet for silver, his 20.31 this season is considerably better than Hession's 20.46.

After that, it's wide open. There's no doubt that Hession has the ability to beat the likes of France's Martial Mbandjock and David Alerte and Britain's Christian Malcolm. Something close to his national record of 20.30 would probably be good enough. After his one-man crusade to make Irish sprinting respectable, he would be a popular medallist.

So would Robert Heffernan whose career has included top-ten finishes in the Olympics, the Worlds and the Europeans. He is in the European top ten again this year in the 20km walk and, intriguingly, is third in Europe over 50km after his first race over the distance in March. Like Loughnane, his task is made tougher by the fact that in the walks the European Championships are almost as tough as the World equivalent. His choice of event may be crucial, though Heffernan's chance may have come and gone at this stage. Which is exactly what we were saying about Olive Loughnane this time last year.

The other possibility is Alistair Cragg who certainly has the talent to be involved at the business end of things in the 5,000m final and has run well this season, though this looks likely to provide a home 1-2-3 for Jesus Espana, Alemayeh Bezabeh and Sergio Sanchez. Other than that we'll be looking for hopeful signs for the future from the likes of sprinter Niamh Whelan, long jumper Kelly Proper and a women's 4x100m relay team which might shock everyone and reach the final.

And it's a terrible pity that Eileen O'Keefe, a definite medal prospect at her best in the hammer, will be missing through injury as will Mary Cullen who appears at some stage to have come under a curse.

The same curse has afflicted Joanne Cuddihy, a finalist in the 400m four years ago, who might have kicked on since then had she not spent so much time on the treatment table.

There will be 1,370 athletes competing in Barcelona. Thirty-three of them will be Irish. They travel with much more optimism than is usually the case, but also with much greater expectations. There's no two ways about this: the pressure is on them to do their sport proud, to inspire the next generation and to earn athletics a more prominent role in the national sporting conversation.

We'll know how it went this day week. And if, for the first time ever, we have three Irish athletes on the podium, then it's job done, the team of the year award should be presented without further ado and every member of every athletics club in the country will be walking with a spring in their step for the rest of the year. It's D-Day.

On your marks . . .

Sunday Independent

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