Sunday 18 February 2018

Athletics: A silver lining but why did we drop the baton?

Not for the first time, the way our athletes are treated has been cast in a dim light, writes John O'Brien

I F her first instinct upon passing the line in second place in Barcelona last weekend was to joyously celebrate the silver medal she'd just claimed, Derval O'Rourke's next instinct was to heap criticism on a support system that, in her estimation, hadn't done much to get her onto the European podium.

"If you don't paddle your own canoe in Irish athletics, you're going nowhere," she said. "And I think that's a little bit sad."

By any standards, it was an extraordinary outburst from one of the country's most successful sports stars. And O'Rourke probably realised that, for all the truth she spoke, her harsh words were somewhat mistimed. Two days later, she arrived in Dublin and when the same questions were eagerly fired at her, she held back, as those close to her had advised. On another day the moment to tell things as they were would come. But this wasn't it.

And yet it was impossible not to think about Saturday night, the emotional force of her words, the sheer intensity of her frustration. She spoke of the years of neglect, the chronic lack of the country's athletics facilities, the lack of hope for the future: the age-old problems with Irish athletics. Then she spoke about the Athens Olympics when she'd been in hospital with appendicitis and no one from her federation had bothered to contact her. Athens is six years ago now. That's a lot of anger and pent-up frustration.

O'Rourke's triumph has been to use such bracing feelings in a constructive manner. After Barcelona, the first entry on her entertaining blog identifies her coaches, Sean and Terri Cahill, and trainer, Mark McCabe, as the inspiration for her success. Pointedly, her own federation doesn't get a look in. At the airport she acknowledged the funding she gets from the Irish Sports Council, but she has earned that support. One day she will be on the way down and they will strike her off. That is how the system works.

And she must surely have cast a wry smile when she saw the reported words of Patsy McGonagle, the Ireland team manager, last week. McGonagle suggested that in the wake of the championships it was time for some of the older athletes to "move on" and explained that certain athletes had been approached and advised to think about implementing radical changes with their coaching set-ups.

A few years ago, people had been telling O'Rourke that change was the way to go and so she'd relocated to Bath to join a top-class team with top-class coaches and facilities. But she quickly realised it wasn't right for her. She was a homebird. She needed her home comforts around her, her own bed to sleep in, her old friends to have a natter with. So she returned and built a winning team around her; block by block; step by painful step.

The thing is, though, in any audit of Ireland's performance last week, Athletics Ireland wouldn't fare that badly. Most of what they were obliged to do, they carried out competently and without mishap. In general, the athletes spoke positively about the arrangements. Before the championships they arranged a week-long warm-up in Murcia and those who attended spoke of how well-run and helpful it had been.

Before that again they had offered athletes on the verge of qualifying a €1,000 bonus as an incentive, a godsend to those who had spent heavily all summer trying to achieve the standard. And within two days of the team being selected, the money was resting in the athletes' bank accounts. When they arrived in Barcelona airport, McGonagle was always at hand to greet them. On the bus from hotel to track it was ensured that no Irish athlete ever travelled alone.

And yet, for all that, the week entailed one moment of crisis and, when that arose, the team management desperately flunked it. Although David Gillick had suffered intense disappointment when finishing only fifth in his 400m final on Friday night, he was still expected to line up for the relay the following morning. When he failed to show, the team collapsed into seventh place in their heat and a shower of criticism rained down on Gillick's shoulders.

O'Rourke, among others, was incensed by this. And it isn't difficult to imagine why. She may be two years older than Gillick but they came of age as athletes around the same time and, for years, they have been effectively sharing the burden as Ireland's most high-profile athletes. The sense of kinship is palpable. "I heard he'd got criticism for the relay," she said after her final, "and I think that's unwarranted. I think management make decisions on relays and it isn't fair for Gillick to be criticised."

O'Rourke was right to pinpoint management as the culprit: it was largely a systems failure. The key point is that over the past few years, the AAI has adopted a strategy of trying to foster a team ethos around major championships -- so-called 'Team Ireland' -- but last week showed how little progress they have made. Because it was only a relay few took much notice but it managed to shine a bright light on just how dysfunctional the Irish system is.

Those members who turned up and raced were entitled to feel let down and abandoned. That Ireland had qualified three athletes for the 400m individual event meant it was a logical extension to assume they had a serious chance of performing well in the 400m relay. No one in AAI made this dot-joining observation, though. The relay squad seemed to travel as a mere afterthought. An adjunct at the end of a long, exhausting week.

The sense of a missed opportunity was glaring. After the third leg the Irish team sat in a comfortable third place, having gone through 1,200m in a time not far above 2.17. That was ahead of the target they had set themselves in the build-up to the race. The plan then was for Gillick to take over and "rock out." Even an average run from Gillick would have sufficed under the circumstances. Ultimately, however, they had to go to war without their general.

The farce had begun weeks, maybe months, earlier. It was only a month ago that a men's relay team had been sanctioned for Barcelona. By then, the women's 4x100m squad had been selected and had met for a few sessions to work with Terri Cahill. It wasn't much but it at least inspired a sense of team spirit and commitment. No such efforts were made on behalf of the men's squad.

And so the seeds for confusion were sown. On Friday afternoon, the team had gathered, in Gillick's absence, and discussed strategy with McGonagle and other coaches. Paul Hession was named as cover and Dave McCarthy, informed he wouldn't be needed, made arrangements to fly home and be with his family. The order of the team was decided upon: Gordon Kennedy, Brian Gregan, Brian Murphy, Gillick.

The baffling thing was why Hession's name cropped up at all. Hession had never expressed any interest in running a relay before. Had he even been consulted about it? So when the issue with Gillick arose and Hession declared himself unavailable, there was no other contingency plan. McCarthy was gone and Nick Hogan, the next best specialist 400m runner, hadn't even been on the plane.

The situation lurched quickly from crisis into farce. According to sources close to the team, Gillick was asked 12 times by McGonagle to change his mind but wasn't for turning. Then at midnight Steven Colvert, the young UCD 200m runner attending his first major championships, texted other team members to inform them he was taking Gillick's place. Colvert had never raced a 400m in his life. Was this some kind of joke or a bad dream?

As they arrived at the track the following morning, wiping sleep from tired eyes, the Irish athletes realised the magnitude of the bad dream they were living through. Beside their scraped-together team, they watched the British team warm up, all eight of them including Michael Bingham and Martyn Rooney, the silver and bronze medallists from the night before. Ready to run their hearts out again.

And that essentially was the difference between them. The British athletes were a team. They believed implicitly in what they were doing. They trusted their own federation. They knew what was expected and demanded of them and were happy to oblige. There was no information deficit between them. And so they would leave for home with six golds, 21 medals in all, while Ireland had O'Rourke's solitary, heroic silver from which to draw comfort.

In short, the British have a system and Ireland, as O'Rourke rightly pointed out, don't. In that context, farce is as likely as a medal and, in Barcelona last week, we were treated to both.

Sunday Independent

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