Saturday 24 March 2018

Athletics: Baton dropped for want of vision

John Greene

John Greene

The three fastest 100 metre sprinters in Irish history are Paul Hession (10.18), Jason Smyth (10.22) and Steven Colvert (10.35). A year ago this trio and Chris Russell, whose fastest time is 10.61, teamed up to run the relay event at the Europa Cup in Turkey.

With no training to speak of behind them, they ran the 4x100m in 39.61, the third fastest time ever by an Irish team and one which was good enough to earn them third spot on the night behind Switzerland and the Netherlands. More importantly, the run ranked the quartet as 12th fastest in Europe last year.

And yet Ireland has not run this event since, despite the fact that one more run of a similar time, or perhaps even a fraction slower, would have been good enough to qualify them for the European Championships, and thus give them a springboard to attempt Olympic qualification. Those in the know felt this team had every chance of doing just that. And it's not as if Athletics Ireland has any excuses for not entering a team anywhere since -- the qualification window opened 18 months ago. Two races, 18 months, surely not a problem?

One run, on the back of a bit of practice, was all that separated Ireland's sprinters from a possible Olympic berth and yet it now looks certain the chance has been lost. Having been largely ignored by their association, and so desperate were a group of athletes to give it a go, that one of their number recently contacted a European meet organiser to enter a team on his own initiative, but his plea for a spot on the starting blocks fell on deaf ears. What a shame.

Then there's the men's 4x400m team, who were ranked eighth in Europe until last week after runs at the Europa Cup and in Holland, the latter of which was organised and financed by the athletes themselves. Again, the top 16 in the world qualify, and again it would not take a huge leap of faith by AI to get them over the line.

It is hard to fathom why these two sets of Olympic hopefuls should be ignored in this fashion. It is a further example of the problems within AI -- an organisation which seems to be permanently hamstrung by an inability to deliver the best possible outcome for Irish athletics and Irish athletes. There just appears to be so many inconsistencies in their approach to athletes.

Perhaps this is what explains the fact that while two men's teams of some potential are left languishing on the shelf, a women's team of some potential -- the 4x400m -- are getting all the heat, literally, following a warm weather training camp in Portugal with a run in Poland today. This exciting group of athletes is in a strong position to qualify for London, as they currently lie eighth in Europe and are also inside the coveted world's top 16. The 3:27.48 run by Marian Heffernan, Joanne Cuddihy, Claire Bergin and Michelle Carey at the World Championships last September was an Irish record.

But it makes no sense to put all the eggs in one basket. It would not take much planning, investment or management on the part of AI to qualify three, or maybe even four, relay teams for London. Sadly, though, the lack of vision, which has been a hallmark of the association, is again in evidence.

This is not to diminish the achievement in Ireland qualifying so many athletes for the Olympics this time round, or to ignore the fact that there could yet be a handful more. But there are still questions worth asking, the key one of which is how much is down to AI, and how much is down to the athletes themselves? Because it seems that it is those athletes who take their fate into their own hands early in their careers who seem to prosper most.

What happens to athletes who show promise in their teens? Are they identified by AI and inducted into a special programme to enhance their development, given career advice and assisted into a suitable college either in Ireland or abroad to further develop their talents, all the while under the supervision of an expert in their discipline? Or are they largely left to fend for themselves? Too often, sadly, it is the latter. Too often an aspiring athlete relies on a parent or family friend to guide them in their formative years, waiting for the system to catch up with them.

Which brings us back to relays. Their importance should never be underestimated. There are obvious benefits, aside from the bonus of qualifying additional athletes for an Olympics. For instance, having a relay team competing at European, World or Olympic level offers a great opportunity to develop athletes. For countries like Ireland, a relay team at a major event would almost certainly feature several young athletes who had not managed to get the qualifying time for their individual discipline but who could still have the opportunity to experience the championship atmosphere. It keeps the athlete in the sport; keeps them focused on competing, even after the disappointment of failing to qualify in their own right. Being part of a team at a major games gives an athlete a taste of the big time and exposes him or her to a big event.

It also removes the mystique surrounding big occasions. Often the undoing of young athletes when they first go to compete in a major championship is that sense of awe, a feeling of being an impostor on the stage. As part of a team, that is less of an issue. David Gillick, for example, made his debut as a senior athlete for Ireland as part of the 4x400m relay team at the World Championships in Paris in 2003.

You only have to look back at the farcical events in Barcelona at the last European Championships, when Colvert was called up at the last minute to run a leg in the 400m relay despite never having trained for that distance, to see the havoc a major systems failure in AI can cause.

Gillick was not entirely blameless that day, but his decision not to run should not have led to the pandemonium that it did. In fact, it all could have been avoided with proper planning and proper communication -- and here we are two years later with a couple of relay teams and nothing much has changed.

The baton has yet to be passed.

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