Monday 21 January 2019

Comment - Healy a rare beam of light at another gloomy Championship for Ireland’s outclassed athletes

Ireland's Phil Healy following her third placed finish in the Women's 400 Metres Heats on Day Two of the IAAF World Indoor Championships at the Birmingham Arena, England. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ireland's Phil Healy following her third placed finish in the Women's 400 Metres Heats on Day Two of the IAAF World Indoor Championships at the Birmingham Arena, England. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

It started with disappointment, flickered with glimmers of hope, but ultimately ended with a whimper. For the Irish, the World Indoors in Birmingham will be filed away with the other major championships since the Rio Olympics - one where they were present alright, but in truth had very little presence.

The obvious exception, of course, is Phil Healy, who was the only one of our five competitors to advance from the opening round, the 23-year-old showing no shortage of courage and class in her 400m heat on Friday morning, coming home third in 52.75 to advance to a semi-final, the first time since 2010 an Irish athlete has managed such a feat.

If that seems like a thin strand of success to be clinging to, it's reflective of how little we've come to expect from our World Indoor teams since the likes of Derval O'Rourke and David Gillick slipped away into retirement.

If the talent isn't there, no amount of willpower will conjure up a run to rival the world's best, and we saw once again how at this level any slight under-performance is amplified.

What was most promising about Healy's displays was not so much the results themselves - after all the average of her two performances was about a second slower than her season's best - but the way she approached the race.

So often, Irish athletes have arrived on a stage like this only to loiter in the shadows, little more than spectators with an access-all-areas pass, but Healy stamped her authority on the show from the moment the gun fired.

Lining up against a world finalist in Eilidh Doyle and an Olympic medallist in Stephenie-Ann McPherson, she powered to the front and showed them the kind of contempt that only those with a genuine belief in their ability can harbour.

Of course, both athletes came charging past her on the second lap, Healy not having the strength to go with them - at least not yet - but her mentality exemplified an athlete who believes she now belongs at this level. We can expect plenty more from her in the years ahead.

Ciara Mageean, however, now finds herself in a troubling limbo after enduring her third championship disappointment in a row. She claimed afterwards that this was never a huge priority, her eyes trained ahead on the Commonwealth Games, but she's far too classy an athlete to ever consider her 4:11.81 clocking to finish a detached seventh in her 1500m heat anything but a failure.

The championships started for the Irish with Ciara Neville in the women's 60m heats on Friday, but the Limerick sprinter was off the pace from the outset, her time of 7.47 for seventh place not a true reflection of her ability, given she has run 7.34 this year.

At 18, however, the main goal of coming here was always going to be about learning, and if Neville absorbed everything around her - how the world's best warm up, how they behave in the call room, how they cope with their nerves - then it will have been a trip well worth making.

Amy Foster was next into action, and though the 29-year-old wasn't bad in any way, she certainly didn't consider her 7.35 clocking all that good either, not when she has blasted an Irish record of 7.27 this year.

No Commonwealth Games for her next month, a selection omission which left the 29-year-old incensed, but on the path to the European Championships in August she'll have no shortage of fuel for the fire.

Ben Reynolds was the only Irish involvement over the weekend, and in truth he was lucky to even be here, having not run the qualifying standard but been granted a place in the 60m hurdles under the IAAF invitation system.

His race was run after the first hurdle, which he clipped en route to a 7.89 clocking, well off his best.

If that was a dispiriting end for the Irish, there was at least plenty to enthral elsewhere over the weekend, at least when athletes weren't falling victim to draconian officials, who disqualified more athletes for a range of offences than we've ever seen at the World Indoors.

It will no doubt force a rethink of the rule book, but when we were able to look past those debacles, the championships will be remembered as a success.

There were the usual reminders of the sport's problems, of course, and few will have celebrated the golden double by Ethopia's Genzebe Dibaba, whose coach, Jama Aden, was arrested in Spain in 2016 during a doping raid at a hotel when large quantities of doping products were found.

But there was plenty else to feel good about, like a stunning women's pole vault won by one of the sport's most likeable stars in Sandi Morris, or a captivating men's long jump where 4cm separated the top three.

Adam Kszczot was his usual majestic self in winning the men's 800m, while others like Venezuela's Yulimar Rojas and Britain's Laura Muir also shone bright, athletes every bit as likable as they are believable.

And there was some Irish link to the medals, with Murielle Ahoure of the Ivory Coast happily accepting an Irish flag to celebrate with, in reverse, on her lap of honour.

Overall, it was a four-day fillip for the sport that followed on well from last year's World Championships in London, but once again, unfortunately, just not for the Irish.

Irish Independent

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