Friday 15 December 2017

Athletics boss positive about Olympics despite disappointing showing at Worlds

Rob Heffernan
Rob Heffernan

Cathal Dennehy

With the countdown clock to the Olympics ticking ever louder, Athletics Ireland high performance director Kevin Ankrom believes the national team is in a good place after the conclusion of IAAF World Championships in Beijing yesterday.

Despite Ireland being unable to qualify an athlete for a track final and having just one representative in the field events, Ankrom is adamant that it was a positive week overall for our best athletes.

"This was one of the most competitive World Championships that I have seen," he said. "Our key targets were for Rob to defend his world title but more so after two surgeries to return and compete. Our other key targets were for Mark English and Thomas Barr to reach the semi-finals and have a run at making the finals."

Having been in medal contention up until the last five miles, Heffernan eventually faded to fifth in the men's 50km race walk. "That result will hopefully consolidate that I'm still world-class," he said. "It's a relief because you can't have two years without a result. People work off statistics, and all of a sudden you could be cut (from funding), so today I've proved I can be back up there with the best. Nothing is important now, only Rio."

Afterwards, Heffernan paid tribute to his wife Marian, who had played an essential role, both personally and professionally, for him this year. "Without Marian I wouldn't be here today," he said. "We've a great system and we've created it ourselves."

After Heffernan (right), Mark English was the next best of the Irish, finishing 10th overall after being eliminated in his 800m semi-final. "It's judged as a failure if you fail at the semi-final stage, but if you came 10th in the marathon it'd be a great race, so that's a good run," said English.

Thomas Barr faced a similar fate to English, the Waterford athlete ending the championships 11th overall after finishing fourth in his 400m hurdles semi-final. "The finals of both of their events were some of the toughest for athletes to reach," said Ankrom. "That has to be put into perspective to the level that both of them achieved."

Later in the week, Barr and English teamed up with Brian Murphy and Brian Gregan and though the relay quartet finished eighth in their 4x400m semi-final, they ran faster than any Irish team in history with their national record of 3:01.26.

"We'll continue to support the 4x4 and other relay teams in 2016 as we believe there are great opportunities at the European Championships," said Ankrom.

While some, such as Barr, English and Heffernan produced performances that were close to their best in Beijing, others - like pole vaulter Tori Pena, 800m runner Ciara Everard and some of other race walkers and 3,000m steeplechasers - performed well below par.

"There's always disappointments and surprises at championships," says Ankrom. "Those that underperformed know what they did and know what they need to improve on. Most athletes had first-time World Championships experiences and at this level, season's bests and personal bests are not always on the cards."

Leaving aside Heffernan's gold medal at the previous championships in Moscow, this event marked an overall improvement for the Irish team on the 2013 edition, though in terms of depth, it was still a weaker championships for the Irish than the 2009 and 2011 events.

Ankrom, though, feels that's an unfair comparison. "The 2009 and 2011 teams were loaded with well-established and experienced athletes," he says. "We have young and inexperienced athletes that are trying to bridge that massive gap of world-class performance. We've seen that next step with Mark and Thomas and the relay team."

In Beijing, the average age of the Irish team was 26.9 years old, but Ankrom feels it's among the younger athletes on the team - along, of course, with Heffernan - where our best hopes of Olympic success lie.

"We have a handful of individuals and a relay team than can perform well at the Rio Games," he said. "There is now a few who have the experience and are at a level to make a real impact. I also think a few key distance athletes will return to form to run well in Rio."

Among the distance runners who'll be hoping to bolster the team with next year are Fionnuala Britton, Mary Cullen, Paul Robinson and Ciarán Ó Lionáird who, for various reasons, all missed out on this year's World Championships.

Beijing highs and lows

Three highs

Bolt from the blue

It appeared to be Justin Gatlin's race to lose, and that's exactly what he did in the men's 100m final, straining for the line and sending the Bird's Nest into rapturous celebration as he allowed Usain Bolt to sneak past and claim his third world 100m title.

Super Schippers

The 23-year-old former heptathlete made good on her freakish junior talent when storming to victory in the women's 200m in 21.63 seconds, making her the third fastest woman of all time over the distance.

Heffernan holds head high

It wasn't a medal, but one year out from the Rio Olympics, it was a performance of typical class, grit and resilience from the 37-year-old to finish fifth in the 50km race walk.

Three lows

Kenyan doping bust

The illusion of Kenyans being impervious to doping grows more ridiculous by the day, and never was it more absurd than on Wednesday afternoon, when it was announced Kenyan B-list athletes Joyce Zakary and Koki Manunga had tested positive in Beijing.

Huddle horror show

US 10,000m runner Molly Huddle had the bronze medal in the bag, but the 30-year-old eased up in celebration in the final 10 metres, losing out to team-mate Emily Infeld. "I might not get a chance like this again," said Huddle.

Grateful Gatlin

At the 100m press conference on Sunday night, one European journalist asked twice-banned drugs cheat Justin Gatlin about the perception of his rivals wanting a Bolt victory due to the American's shady past. "I'm thankful," he said blankly each time that he was pressed for an answer.

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