Tuesday 20 March 2018

Athletics: Marathon saga runs on for far too long

John Greene

John Greene

On Sunday next in Copenhagen, Barbara Sanchez will attempt to become the fifth Irish athlete to achieve the Olympic 'A' standard time for the women's marathon, but only a maximum of three competitors per country is allowed.

If Sanchez completes the course in two hours and 37 minutes or less, Athletics Ireland will have a real headache. Already qualified are Linda Byrne, Maria McCambridge, Caitriona Jennings and Ava Hutchinson. How do you tell an athlete who has done all that is asked of them, and has qualified for London, that they can't go. Nevertheless, this is what must happen as one, or two, athletes will lose out.

All those who set out to achieve the 'A' standard knew that only three athletes could ultimately be sent, which sort of makes the 'they knew what they were getting themselves into' line an easy one to trot out, but how many people really thought -- even those closest to the scene -- that Ireland could qualify up to five women for London in the marathon?

Athletics Ireland had originally planned to announce its decision on who would go on June 12 but the Irish Times revealed last weekend that 'common sense' had prevailed, and that the cut-off would be brought forward to May 20, in other words after Sanchez's Copenhagen run. Of course, this version of events is only really true in the cosy world of that paper's athletics coverage. The decision had been taken "because concerns were raised this week about the needlessly anxious wait". In actual fact, this was a u-turn. Only days earlier, Athletics Ireland's team manager for the Olympics, Patsy McGonagle, said "that selection criteria stands".

Athletics Ireland has done the right thing of course in changing the selection date, but making a virtue of it is going a bit far. They only did so when they finally clued in to the fact that the athletes were being deeply unsettled because they could not be certain of their fate.

But surely, once Caitriona Jennings ran 45 seconds inside the 'A' standard in Rotterdam four weeks ago to become Ireland's fourth qualifier, that was the time for Athletics Ireland to act. It should have been immediately apparent that a decisive course of action was required.

Instead, the four women will have been left to stew for over five weeks by the time they find out who is going, and who isn't. It is hardly stretching things to speculate that preparation for the Games will have been hampered -- athletes need clarity this close to a major event, they cannot afford to have their minds clouded by doubt; they have enough obstacles to surmount without having needless ones put in their path by their own federation.

Here's what McCambridge said just a few days before McGonagle confirmed the decision to bring the date forward: "I wish they'd let us know. It's really unfair to keep us waiting. I'm headwrecked."

She added: "Because the delay does affect your training. If I'm not being selected, I'd like to know now, get it over with, and maybe get ready for the European Championships, or target the 10,000 metres qualifying time. But right now I don't know what to do. I don't want to rock the boat, but in my personal opinion, yes, bring the selection forward."

As with any problem of your own making, it could have been avoided. McCambridge, to be fair to her, has said on the record that Byrne (pictured) should be selected because she won the Dublin Marathon last October, finishing ahead of McCambridge, Jennings and Hutchinson in the process. Indeed, a proposal from the organisers of the Dublin Marathon to use it as an Olympic qualifier for Irish men and women was rejected at the time. That certainly could have helped to alleviate the current situation.

Having passed that up, there was still a chance to make amends. Hutchinson's run was on April 15. The selectors could have met within days, and having a mind to the guidelines and selection criteria that had been set down for all athletes, could have chosen a simple course of action.

They could have decided that week to rank the four qualified for London from one to four and to then tell the top two they were certainties, thus removing any doubt for them.

In this scenario, they could have told their fourth choice that she would not be selected unless someone got injured in the meantime; and they could have told their third choice that she would be selected subject to Sanchez not getting the standard. In the event that Sanchez achieves the time next weekend, the selectors could have reconvened to pick the final athlete -- a straight selection between Sanchez, as the atlete with the most recent form, and their initial third choice.

This way, only one athlete would have been in any doubt and the other three would know exactly what their position is.

In the real world, that's common sense.

Sunday Indo Sport

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