Friday 20 April 2018

Athletics: Ireland in need of 'Volcano' eruptions to shake things up

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

SEVERAL members of Ireland's 33-strong team at the European Championships were taken quietly aside in Barcelona in the past week and told to shape up or ship out!

"Maybe it is time for some of our older athletes to move on. That conversation has been held with one or two of them already," Irish team manager Patsy McGonagle sternly revealed before the team flew home.

When McGonagle said "move on" he didn't mean retirement, but rather for those athletes to show progress and with a 'home' Olympics in London 2012, that is particularly urgent.

To make progress, some athletes will be asked to make drastic changes to their own set-up; like changing their coach, location, training group or even all three.

That actually happens behind the scenes most years and McGonagle, a straight-talking PE teacher and Head of Sport in Letterkenny IT, doesn't usually beat about the bush.

But he's like Oprah Winfrey compared to the man who has just turned British athletics around. At the last Europeans in 2006 there was uproar when Britain only won one gold medal -- their worst result ever.

This time they took 21 medals (six golds) -- three more than in Split in 1990 and their most successful European haul in 76 years.

Britain's finances and support dwarf those of Irish athletics, but the man getting all the kudos is Charles van Commenee, a former Dutch social worker and multi-event coach who was installed as UK Athletics head coach only 18 months ago and has ruled since with an iron fist.

He was famously dubbed 'Volcano' by Denise Lewis, whom he coached to Olympic gold and he called another of his charges, Kelly Sotherton, "a wimp" when she won Olympic bronze in 2004.

He reportedly banned the words 'injury problems' and 'niggles' from the British team's vocabulary at last year's World Championships and appears to have thrown down ultimatums left, right and centre. High jumper Martyn Bernard is a case in point.

He was threatened with losing his funding if he didn't relocate from Liverpool to UK Athletics' training centre in Lee Valley, London, and change his coach. Bernard moved and won bronze in Barcelona. A strong feature of Britain's reign in Spain was the number of older athletes, serial underachievers and ones without Lottery grants who made the podium. But not everyone likes Van Commenee's methods.

He brought Linford Christie in to give the team a motivational speech and also picked Dwain Chambers, two athletes with drug-tainted pasts. Their involvement with Team GB has caused ripples.

While demanding higher qualification standards than those set down by the European federation, Van Commenee has also retained a veto to override them himself, trusting his own instinct.

Mark Lewis Francis only travelled as part of the relay team but, having watched him in the training camp, Van Commenee selected him to run individually and he took 100m silver.

Ireland's resources will never compare to Britain, but it is inarguable that Ireland's high performance programme must have suffered some neglect in the past two years due to Athletics Ireland's boardroom wrangles.


As Derval O'Rourke pointed out, "a heap of money" was wasted on legal fees which could have funded athletes, coaches or training groups and probably helped raise overall performances in Barcelona. But it wasn't all bad.

Allowing for illnesses to Olive Loughnane and Thomas Chamney, less athletes drastically underachieved at the Euros than in recent years. There were four Irish records (Derval O'Rourke, Robert Heffernan and two in women's relays) and David Gillick and Ailis McSweeney came close to breaking two others.

Apart from O'Rourke's silver and Heffernan's two fourths, there were four other Irish finalists, another five semi-finalists, one personal best and four additional season's bests.

The public, inevitably, judge on medals and Ireland only met half of their declared target of two. That wasn't helped by Gillick's failure to execute in his 400m final, but he is far from a beaten docket.

If medals are the barometer of success then what Ireland badly needs is someone of Van Commenee's ilk to come in and get tough with people.

But coaches of his quality are not easily found, cost big bucks if you do get them and inevitably leave casualties in their wake.

The burning question is: are Irish athletes, coaches -- and Athletics Ireland itself -- ready for that kind of tough love?

Irish Independent

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