Wednesday 16 October 2019

Cathal Dennehy : 'Ciara Mageean sums up all that's good in athletics, we must sit up and take notice'

Ireland's Ciara Mageean. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ireland's Ciara Mageean. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Shortly after finishing 10th in the world on Saturday, Ciara Mageean came out with a line, one that neatly summarises her attitude to athletics. "Hopefully seeing me race on the world stage has had an impact on kids at home."

It was said in hope more than expectation, Mageean aware the patriotic attention of the sporting nation wouldn't be directed anywhere but Japan this month. After all, RTÉ once again didn't televise the World Championships, considering the rights too expensive, and who could blame them?

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These days it's easy to see athletics as a once-a-year-sport, to wake up to it during a major championships and giggle along at the latest scandal unfolding alongside the action. Gaze in at the dysfunctional family next door then shut the curtains for the next 51 weeks.

But if Ciara Mageean does something superb in the desert, does it still make a sound back home? The same for Brendan Boyce, sixth in the 50km race walk here, and Thomas Barr, 11th in the 400m hurdles.

But the thing is, their achievements don't make for clickable content. On Irish radio last week you'd be far more likely to hear those who barely follow the sport talk of a British athlete and his former coach from America than hear anyone discuss the Irish athletes now among the top dozen in the world.

Alberto Salazar understandably grabbed his share of headlines, having been banned for four years by the US Anti-Doping Agency for multiple violations. Good, said the majority of coaches, athletes and agents I spoke with in Doha, who felt for a long time that Salazar was a blight on the sport's façade.

It brought a confirmation bias bubbling to the surface, however, for those who believe all athletes are doping. The sport was indeed once corrupted from the top down, but athletics, like cycling, has self-sabotaged its popularity through its effort to clean up. You likely won't hear of a doping scandal stealing headlines at the Rugby World Cup, and either that means the sport is crystal clean or something far more sinister is at play. Athletics often feels like the gifted but fatally flawed maestro, a sport with the capacity to captivate the world if it could just keep itself on the straight and narrow.

It doesn't help when some athletes make apologies for a banned coach - as occurred this week - or when TV pundits offer positive opinions about Salazar without any thought.

Coming to Doha, of course, was a terrible idea. Human rights were one reason, but there was also the heat and humidity, the bonkers notion of air-conditioning an outdoor stadium in the desert.

There were occasionally empty stands, the embarrassing sight of the world's fastest women doing a lap of honour in an empty stadium. But it wasn't all bad. Far from it.

Yes, it's absurd that we came to a place where the only way to fill stands was to bus in spectators, but those using it to sound a death knell for the sport clearly weren't watching in Berlin last year or in London in 2017, championships packed to the brim with spectators.

What gets lost in this thirst for a scandal is so many in this game do things the right way. As such, there's a duty not just to bound in with pious anger when a scandal breaks because if a sport is worth talking about, it should be seen for its finest points, not just its flaws.

See it for the 400m hurdles showdown between Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin last week. See it for Kenya's Conseslus Kipruto coming back from a broken ankle to win a thrilling 3000m steeplechase right on the line. See it for the power and speed and believable brilliance of Dina Asher-Smith as she won her first world title over 200m.

See it for Ciara Mageean, standing in that mixed zone after a lifetime of work, 10th in the world and hoping those back home, those with the power to influence the next generation, still cared enough to notice. Or noticed enough to care.

Irish Independent

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