Monday 20 May 2019

Athletics: Boosting our track record

Kevin Ankrom aims to make Irish athletics more competitive, writes John O'Brien

THE day after Max Jones was installed as high performance director for Athletics Ireland in April 2007, Kevin Ankrom was announced as his equivalent in New Zealand. Ankrom had applied for both jobs. On the same day that he flew to Dublin to meet Irish athletics officials, he fielded a conference call with their New Zealand counterparts from his hotel room that night. They were sufficiently impressed to want to meet him face-to-face.

Looking back, Ankrom senses the course of events worked well in his favour. At the time he was aware of the bitter feuding that was threatening to rip Irish athletics apart from within. That didn't necessarily put him off, just that in hindsight four years in the relative tranquillity of New Zealand might have been, at that point, a safer bet for an ambitious coach not yet 40.

But no, it wouldn't have unnerved him. A part of him might even have relished it. In ways Ankrom sees himself as a kind of fixer, a less macabre version of the character Morgan Freeman plays in the 2007 movie The Cleaner, moving in after the forensics people had finished with a crime scene, scrubbing away any remaining traces of the horrors that had taken place.

"Knowing the history of what happened here, I always kept tabs on it," he says. "And maybe I did have a bit of hesitancy at first. You guys have some issues. But to be honest it's one of the reasons I get these jobs in the first place. Because they bring the cleaner in, the mechanic. Not to be derogatory, but part of the reason I was brought in was to sort things out."

When he was unveiled as Jones' successor in May, no fanfare heralded his arrival. Nobody knew enough about him to offer anything more than a guarded welcome. Ankrom understood that. He didn't sweep in wearing a wizard's hat, promising instant glory for Irish athletics. He was just an enthusiastic 43-year-old former athlete with a decent record behind him who, given time and support, could make a contribution.

So the delicate process began. Us getting to know him. Him becoming familiar with our ways. Such are the vested interests in Irish athletics that he figures his first major task is to work out how best to do his job while annoying as few people as possible. Keeping his brief wide enough to placate people, but sufficiently narrow that he doesn't spread himself too thinly, like tasteless margarine.

The biggest challenge he's met so far, he says, isn't the height of the expectation, rather the breadth of it. "Everyone expects you to be here, do this or do that. Why aren't you at this little meet? Why aren't you over here? When you first come into a job you want to tell everyone what you can do. Once you're given the job, you gotta tell everybody this is what I can't do. And I can't be here and there at the same time."

This isn't a complaint. In attaining the job he was fulfilling a long-standing ambition to work in Ireland. He has family roots in Co Kilkenny which he always wanted to explore. More than that, though, as happy as he was in New Zealand, its remoteness in athletics terms was always a bind. Ireland wasn't a world superpower, but it was on the edge of Europe and Europe was the stage where big athletics dreams were played out.

Our problems weren't likely to daunt him. Remind him of the country's third-world sporting facilities, its repeated Olympic failures, the public opprobrium that usually follows and he heaves the casual shrug of a man who has seen it all before and worse. "Listen, I've been to the poorest places in Asia," he says. "I've seen how people live and train there. These boys don't know how good they have it."

On their own, good facilities and funding aren't sufficient. You need the right attitude too. In Hong Kong, they had a state-of-the-art multi-sports centre to prepare their elite athletes but in 2007 it was commandeered to serve as the equestrian centre for the 2008 Olympics, a nakedly commercial decision that dismayed him and convinced him he had done as much as he could for athletics there.

Still, the best somehow get by. Because of the scattered locations of Ireland's elite athletes he has been clocking up the air miles. He has visited David Gillick in Loughborough. On a trip home to see his mother in Illinois, he made a detour west to see Ciarán ó Lionáird in Oregon and then headed south to hook up with Tori Pena in California. He sees the sacrifices these athletes make and the burning ambition that drives them.

"That's what good athletes do," he says. "It's not about money. It's about heart. Who gives a damn if I don't have this or this? In New Zealand we had Val Adams [world and Olympic shot-putt champion]. She came from a large family, probably didn't have much growing up. It didn't matter what we gave her. She was going to be a champion anyway. She had the drive. Derval [O'Rourke] has that. You see it when you meet them. They're driven."

Because he has only been here a few months, it is widely assumed that Ankrom's input into Ireland's performance at the Olympics will be limited. That the time-frame is too tight to make any appreciable difference. It is an assumption that irks him. "What's the alternative," he wonders. "Do nothing?" Even the smallest of contributions, he suggests, can mean a lot at the highest level.

"If there's something I can find for any athlete, whether it's one per cent or even half of one per cent, at that level it could be the difference between making a final and missing out. What I'm saying to athletes is we can do this together, we'll give you all the support you need. Or, if you prefer, you can go and do it yourself. But I don't want to hear you yelling across the field why aren't you helping me?

"My thinking is I'll stay out of your way if you think you can get it done by yourself. But, at the end of the day, we're funding you. These are the results we expect to come out of it. That's not me trying to strong-arm anybody. If any athlete needs help, I'll be there for them."

Beyond London, of course, there is a future to think of too. He sees an admirable generation of Irish athletes heading towards their twilight years with insufficient numbers behind them to make a seamless transition likely. He sees a potential void which should make us wonder whether we are supporting the right athletes or investing enough in coaches who will be there, long after the athletes are gone, ushering the next generation through.

He sees a country where he hasn't yet encountered one full-time athletics coach within the system. "Therein lies the problem. You have full-time athletes, full-time support services. Full-time this and this and this. Then you just expect a guy who gets off work at 5.0pm to volunteer for three or four hours to coach athletes. Would you do that in rugby? Or soccer? If you can't get that side of it right, then you're in trouble."

His ideas aren't new or radical. A few minor tweaks here and there, he thinks, could go a long way. Like why not fund a part-time coach to work with a talented group of young athletes in one of the big universities? He senses it is that age-group -- athletes in their early 20s who have finished college and are uncertain of their next step -- that tends to be most neglected. Hence the potential void.

And, of course, Ankrom appreciates the danger of bringing even cut-price ideas to a country where austerity reigns and even the most vulnerable are being asked to share the pain. But that doesn't mean you can't continue to argue your case passionately or stop believing in the inherent goodness of what you are trying to do.

"At the top if you want to perform, you have to continue to invest more because the world in athletics is investing more. As we're cutting back, New Zealand are investing €60m over a number of years. They're increasing sport investment. All the little countries are becoming more professional and if we don't follow we're just going to keep dipping and dipping."

He doesn't see a crisis, though. Just little offshoots of hope. Next year the country's first proper indoor athletics arena is due for completion in Athlone and he hopes to see an accumulation of support services around it -- coaches, physios, nutritionists -- a magnet that will draw the country's best athletes, even those based abroad, towards it, like moths to a flame.

And being sport, there are always surprises. When he first met the athletes at a training camp in Portugal in May, he could never have imagined ó Lionáird running 3:34 for the 1,500m in Belgium in August or reaching the final in Daegu a month later. Or Deirdre Ryan's remarkable 1.95m jump in Korea, a sweet surprise given he had been a high jumper himself, good enough to have jumped 2.30m during his student days in North Carolina.

He still remembers the buzz of that magical day, thinking he was about to take his place among the elite of American high jumpers, only to realise the standard was so high back then that he was still nowhere near breaking the top 10. "The reality set in," he says. "You've just jumped 2.30m and you're still only 16th or even No 20 on the list. I thought I'd be at least top 10 in the States. I was like this isn't going to get me anywhere."

So he found his calling in coaching and organising instead. Initially at Valparaiso and Wilmington in North Carolina. Then three years as national team coach in Bahrain. Then four years in Hong Kong and another four in New Zealand. The latter, comparable in terms of climate and population, has often been used as a barometer to measure progress in Ireland and Ankrom sees merit in that yardstick.

"Why is it that when I went to the Commonwealth Games I took 15 athletes and returned eight medals? Or to the Olympics with nine athletes and returned two medals? Everyone, unless hurt, in a finishing position. It's the system. It's the progression. Why is it you could have double the numbers in Ireland going to a championship and yet you're getting less finishing positions? You can call it luck but I don't think it is."

He talks about smart investment, building structures, creating opportunities. Not about medals or imposing targets. He measures success in terms of finishing positions: top 16s, top 12s, top 8s and so on. He sees opportunities for finishing positions at next month's European Cross-country Championships and in London next summer. Create enough opportunities, he says, and the results will follow.

He has no problem with setting high standards, however. While not everybody in Irish athletics supports the policy of accepting only A standards as the qualifying mark for the Olympics, Ankrom sees it as a "dead issue." The standards have been set and there is no option but to aim for them. "The Olympics is the OCI's gig," he says. "This is their team. It's the same all over the world. Olympic Councils pick the team. We need to be very clear about that."

Clarity is the key. There are certain circumstances where he might support the selection of a B standard athlete, but a watertight policy needs to be in place for it not to cause tension or friction.

And with 12 Irish athletes already in possession of the A standard, and as many more capable of joining them before the London deadline, he sees compelling enough evidence that if you set high standards the cream will rise to meet them.

When he arrived in New Zealand, he sensed the future was about as hopeful as it is in Ireland now. So they began investing heavily in coaches, worked hard on their youth and junior sections and, by the time he'd left, they were sending vastly increased numbers to major championships and producing results. The right systems were in place and all the vested interests were pulling together.

Some time after he'd gone, though, a mini-storm erupted on the sports pages of the New Zealand press. Scott Newman, the CEO of Athletics New Zealand, had praised Ankrom for his contribution, suggesting he had overseen the country's most successful ever period, a claim that provoked a firestorm of protest from former athletes and coaches who invoked the names of gods like John Walker, Peter Snell and Rod Dixon in accusing Newman of blasphemy.

Ankrom shrugs now. The critics just didn't get it. New Zealand, like Ireland, has always produced great athletes but what about the gaps in between, the long barren periods where nobody was carrying the torch? This gets conveniently forgotten. What Newman was referring to was a period where they delivered consistently at every level, nurturing a conveyor belt of talent to ensure a smoother transition.

"The whole thing was taken out of context. Yes, you had great performances by Snell and Walker and others over X number of years. But what Scott was saying was that at all levels, from juniors to youths to seniors, we'd been consistently making progress year after year. Maybe we didn't get the medals these guys collected over 20 years but, in the history of athletics in New Zealand, there wasn't that improvement across the board."

He sees no reason to think the same can't happen here. His contract runs to 2014 but he has brought his family with him and hopes he'll still be here for the 2016 Olympics. And if a similar storm rages in the Irish media when he does move on then the fixer will happily conclude that he has done alright.

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