Friday 24 May 2019

Athletics back on right track

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Certain sports can fall into such disfavour with the media that the tendency is to see them exclusively as a bad news story.

This is what happened to soccer in this country since Saipan. For almost a decade since then, every mistake made by the FAI has been magnified, every achievement by the national team belittled, every drama turned into a crisis.

That the FAI is a disaster has become one of the clichés of our age, a piece of conventional wisdom parroted even when to do so is patently unfair.

The opposite thing has happened to the GAA in recent times. Often lampooned as conservative and backward-looking in previous decades, the Association has found itself being love-bombed by the media since around the mid-1990s. Everything it does is seen as a tribute to its intelligence, its efficiency, its unique place in Irish life.

The IRFU has been treated in much the same way, though it got a taste of what can happen when the tide turns over the past few weeks. Officials who have been treated as the fount of all wisdom suddenly found that a single mistake over ticket pricing was enough to take media attention away from what was happening on the field to the extent that the result of the game was treated as less important than the question of how many people were in the stands. The media is a fickle and cruel mistress.

One sport which has learned this to its cost is athletics. Since the disappointing showing in the 2004 Olympics, the consensus has been that Irish athletics is a basket case, a waste of space, a betrayal of a great tradition. This barrage of brickbats has continued with even greater force since the contretemps between the Irish Sports Council and Athletics Ireland over the appointment of Mary Coghlan as CEO of the latter organisation and the subsequent controversy which followed her ousting from that position. When it comes to Irish athletics, the bad news story has been THE story.

So it's worth pointing out that 2010 was perhaps the most encouraging year for Irish athletics in the 21st century so far. An astounding 28 national records were set this year at senior, junior and youth levels. Eight of these were the most important kind, national senior outdoor records. By comparison, only two national senior outdoor records were set in 2009. Most encouragingly, a quarter of the records were set at major championships.

The performance of the year, of course, was Derval O'Rourke's silver medal performance in the European 100m hurdles final. Contrary to what the casual athletics journalist might have you believe, setting a personal best and national record in a major final is not a common achievement. O'Rourke finished the year ninth on the world ranking list but a measure of her achievement as a competitor is that world number three, Carolin Nytra of Germany, was one of those behind her in Barcelona.

Perhaps the under-rated Irish sporting achievement of the year was that of Robert Heffernan who finished fourth in both the 20km and the 50km walk at those European Championships. His 50km effort, the fourth best time in the world this year, was rendered truly remarkable by the fact that it came just three days after the 20km race. No other walker figured prominently in both races. Heffernan, one of only two walkers to make the world top 20 in both events, deserves to be far more than a footnote in round-ups of the sporting year.

Ciara Mageean's feat in becoming the only non-African runner to make the medals over middle or long distance at the World Junior Championships when she knocked five seconds off her own national record to win silver over 1,500m is also one of some magnitude. And the West Waterford walker Kate Veale's fourth place in the World Youth Olympics over 5,000m marked her down as a similar prodigy, given that only the mighty Russians, who thoroughly dominate in this event, finished ahead of her.

There were other performances which suggested a bright future for the sport and should act as a corrective to the inaccurate portrayal of Irish athletics as being in decline. In reality, these are exciting times for the sport which faces the toughest competition of all at international level.

It's worth stressing this because there will be cuts in sports funding over the next few years. And athletics, having received such a bad press, might be seen as a politically expedient target. Our elite runners, for example, are already judged by criteria which seem far more rigorous than those applied to competitors in other sports.

If cuts have to be made, they should be made to some of the pork barrel spending which has been indulged in by politicians who treated the sports kitty as a slush fund for their constituencies. Because there is every chance that Ciara Mageean and the outstanding young duo of Kilcock's Paul Robinson, third European finisher in the world junior 1,500m final, and Letterkenny's Mark English, European Youth Olympic champion at 1,000m, will over the next decade give us something we haven't witnessed since the heyday of Sonia, the sight of Irish runners disputing the lead on the last bend of a major middle distance final. That's something that would cheer up the nation.

But if we want to be supporting them then, we'll need to keep supporting them now. The next minister for sport will need to have the courage to back up our athletes. Don't stab these wonderful kids in the back.

Sunday Independent

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