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Athletics plan puts it ahead of posse

There is a fixation in this country with winning medals. We are not alone in that, but in comparison to others, our fascination seems misplaced given our status in the world of sport and how little money we actually spend on it.

So it was hardly surprising last week when Athletics Ireland published its high performance plan for 2013-'16 that talk of medals was back in the headlines. When AI's high performance director Kevin Ankrom threw out a figure of 24 medals to be won at major championship in track and field, and walking, between now and the end of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, ears pricked.

To Ankrom, it was more than likely a passing comment, putting flesh on the bone in the course of what was, in fairness, a very impressive run through AI's plan. Ears pricked even more when he announced he was looking at up to half of that tally coming this year. "Well I've done my homework," he said, "and this is evidence-based, not about waving a magic wand." (And who's to say this is a flight of fancy? There are already two in the bag.)

But before medals, and before a sustained push for them in future years, comes hard work, or at least a much clearer 'pathway' to success for Irish athletes than what they have been used to. That is what this plan is about – it will be "athlete-focused, coach-driven, performance-centred".

So while there will be a greater onus on the association to put everything in place for athletes to prosper, athletes and coaches in turn "will have a responsibility to commit to performance goals of the high performance programme and the pursuit of excellence". In other words, if you are not delivering you will be at risk of being edged out of the programme.

To give an idea of the extent of the plan, which took 14 months to prepare, its executive summary runs to almost 30 pages, which Ankrom broke down even further – into a well-delivered 20-minute presentation.

"The depth and detail in the plan demonstrates the commitment of Athletics Ireland to bring the best international methods and systems to our sport," says CEO John Foley in its Introduction. "The plan is ambitious and represents a significant change of approach and this will be challenging for Athletics Ireland and for our athletes' coaches."

Ankrom has been a polarising figure in Irish athletics since his arrival two years ago from New Zealand. He has walked himself into some needless hardships over that time but, regardless of that, he is the chief architect of this plan, this is what he has been brought in to do and he now has to be given a chance to implement it. He admitted last week that he knows there are elements of his own approach that need to evolve.

Not to over-simplify his relationship with athletes, but he does appear to have more respect from the younger generation than the more established ones.

He made no bones about the fact that particular emphasis will in future be placed on promising athletes in the 19-23 age-group. These, he said, will form the nucleus of the next two Olympic teams.

Then there is the money, because always it comes back to the money.

In putting this plan forward, there has not been an attempt by AI to gloss over the fact that it has to be done on a skimpy budget. There is no point in trying to implement a plan you can't afford. The Guardian last year estimated that each medal won in London by Team GB cost £4.5m (€5.3m). It is far from a level playing field.

As Ankrom admitted, he would love to have a team of full-time coaches to help implement this plan but that's not going to happen. AI has just appointed its first full-time coach – Chris Jones – and that will have to do for now.

In many respects, this plan puts AI ahead of the posse. Over time, the Irish Sports Council will devolve certain responsibilities to the national governing bodies and chief among this process will be handing over the carding scheme for athletes. But only those NGBs which are deemed to be fully engaged in the high performance concept – and this includes having a detailed strategy prepared and operational.

This plan was presented to the council in February, meaning that AI is well on track to be one of the first to benefit from this devolution when it comes.

Irish Independent