Friday 22 November 2019

Athletics: With right people anything's possible

John O'Brien

After he ran in the 200m heats at the Olympics in August, Paul Hession made a number of perceptive comments about the state of Irish athletics. The thrust of his argument was that the age-old moaning about the lack of facilities in Ireland had created a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy among athletes. So much negativity floated around the sport that it became incrementally more difficult for them to believe they could mix it with the world's best.

Hession had an alternative take. People, not inanimate objects, were the vital missing link. When he had relocated to Scotland, he explained, it wasn't to avail of its superior facilities but because he couldn't find the same level of expert coaching here until he returned home and hooked up with John Coghlan in Santry. "Facilities are nothing to do with it," he said. "I think that's overplayed in the Irish media."

Hession's words came to mind after Fionnuala Britton's memorable defence of her European Cross-country title in Budapest last Sunday. The Wicklow athlete's dominant display wasn't just a triumph for her own unquestioned class and indomitable spirit, it provided a much-needed shot in the arm for a sport that has endured another year with little enough to shout about.

Britton's superb achievement would be heart-warming in any circumstances, but that she did it as a home-based athlete lent it that little bit more lustre. Even better, two of the three Irish athletes who combined with her to win the team gold are based at home too. Of course, Britton's coach, Chris Jones, lives and works in the UK but she seems comfortable with that and the arrangement has worked for her.

Why should this matter? It matters because there is something intrinsically good about it. We have always had a tendency in this country to export our problems and, at a time when talent is leaving these shores in droves again, the fact that Irish athletes can remain at home and still aim for the top is a powerful message to be sending out and one that even transcends its close-knit environment.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Derval O'Rourke and David Gillick led the way in the middle of the last decade, achieving huge results and dispelling the myth that you had to go abroad if you were serious about fulfilling your potential. The sad tale of Martin Fagan's descent into EPO use earlier this year was further proof of how harsh and lonely things could get on the other side of the world.

That's not to suggest there is anything wrong with the scholarship route, of course. The point is that there is a genuine alternative for young athletes now where the option of staying at home was a virtual non-runner when the likes of Eamonn Coghlan and Sonia O'Sullivan were in their prime. And credit for that is due in no small part to the vision of those who have established DCU as a centre of sporting excellence and made the Institute of Sport a place where athletes can expect world-class support.

As Hession warned, though, we can't afford to become complacent. Better facilities would be desirable, but how can we rely on politicians to build them? The people already exist, though, and they need to be encouraged and supported. Invest in them and the athletes will come.

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