Wednesday 17 January 2018

Athletics: Cross-country merger on cards as numbers fall

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

Dwindling levels of participation and competition have prompted Athletics Ireland to undertake a major review of their national cross-country structures.

And one of the options they will seriously contemplate is the merging of the inter-club and inter-county competitions into one all-encompassing All-Ireland Championship.

Cross-country running is still seen as the bedrock for future distance-running success and there are two major national competitions each season; the inter-counties before Christmas and the inter-clubs after it.

The latter was always seen as the discipline's blue riband event, but several factors -- its proximity to the indoor championships, the schools championships, and school exams ('mocks') -- are all contributing to decreased participation levels and the absence of many big names, with the junior numbers particularly hard hit.

In the past three years, just 20 or 21 athletes have participated in the junior girls' race at inter-clubs, and only 27 took part in that grade in the inter-counties last winter.

One traditional carrot for participation in both was that they also acted as national trials for upcoming internationals.

The first three home in the inter-counties still qualify for the European Cross-Countries every December, to which Ireland still send teams of six in each grade.

But, due to the increased competitiveness of World Cross-Countries, only the winners of the inter-clubs get selected for that every March and Athletics Ireland no longer send teams to it.

Athletics Ireland went on a big marketing drive this year to increase numbers at the inter-clubs, which paid off when 124 took part in the senior men's race and the junior men's entries (54) nearly doubled.

But the entries in senior (38) and junior women (20) remained very disappointing.

Athletics Ireland have now set up a sub-committee to review how their cross-country structures can be streamlined and improved (especially at junior level) and their first meeting takes place tonight.

Ireland's top cross-country exponent Fionnuala Britton -- fourth at the Europeans last December -- skipped last month's inter-clubs but has still been selected to go to the World Cross-Countries in Spain on Sunday week.

Inter-clubs champion Ava Hutchinson (DSD) is also taking up the offer of competing, as is junior champion Shane Quinn (Ferrybank) but DSD's men's champion Joe Sweeney has passed it up to concentrate on his track season.

Quinn (senior boys) and junior champion Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner (intermediate girls) are among the young stars tipped to take home more titles at the Aviva Irish Schools Cross-Countries tomorrow, which are taking place at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.

Racing starts at noon (minors), the seniors are at 2.05 and 2.20 and it also includes the Irish University Championships (2.45 and 3.15).

Irish Independent

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