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No medals, but Irish athletes proved they can mix with the best in Eugene

Impressive performances at the World Athletics Championships show we are closing the gap on the elite

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Rhasidat Adeleke proved she can mix it with the very best, narrowly missing out on a world final, despite a gruelling season for University of Texas

Rhasidat Adeleke proved she can mix it with the very best, narrowly missing out on a world final, despite a gruelling season for University of Texas

Rhasidat Adeleke proved she can mix it with the very best, narrowly missing out on a world final, despite a gruelling season for University of Texas

Sometimes it’s not about the medals. At this level it can’t be — not for the Irish, nor any nation outside the superpowers of athletics. Sometimes it’s just about the performance: how good you are versus how well you actually performed.

Wedged in an All-Ireland sandwich, searching for oxygen amid the British Open and the New Zealand tour, with the key action taking place in the dead of the Irish night, the World Athletics Championships in Oregon are something you’d be forgiven for barely noticing over the past 10 days. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth noticing.

It’s been nine years since there was an Irish medal at the event, and the team sent to Eugene — Track Town, USA — was never realistically going to end that drought. Not when Thomas Barr, the one who’s shown a consistent ability to compete with the world’s top-10, recently spent five weeks out with an achilles injury.

But again, that’s not to say there isn’t a potential medallist among them. In Rhasidat Adeleke, Ireland could soon have a contender at the very top. The 19-year-old might not have made the world final here in Eugene, but quietly, consistently, the Tallaght athlete put together three of the most remarkable runs by an Irish athlete in recent years.

And she did it all on tired legs. Before Adeleke arrived in Eugene, she’d run 44 races this year — 20 relays and 24 individual. Most of them were for the University of Texas, where she’s been based for the past 18 months. The NCAA indoor season runs through February and March, while its outdoor season runs from April to June. By that point, most collegiate athletes are running on fumes.

Adeleke was the same, but after going on an Irish record rampage this year — setting the best all-time marks at 60m, 200m, 300m and 400m — she earned the right to compete in either the 200m or 400m, and she was damn well going to take it. “When I was training for [the] Worlds, I was really tired,” she admitted. “But once I got here, it felt like a whole new season.”

And she certainly found a new lease of life. It began with the mixed 4x400m relay, where Adeleke’s astonishing anchor leg of 49.80 helped the Irish team into the world final — a race she withdrew from due to feeling unwell. Her split in that heat was faster than all but one athlete who ran the anchor leg in the final — only Femke Bol, the silver medallist in the 400m hurdles on Friday, ran faster.

Two days later, Adeleke was back on the line for the individual 400m, looking entirely at home as she coasted down the home straight in second, clocking 51.59. The semi-final followed three days later, where she lined up beside Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the brilliant Bahamian who has two Olympic titles to her name. Through much of her teenage years, Adeleke was compared to Miller-Uibo due to her versatility, now here she was, running against her.

“It was definitely a new experience, seeing your idol to your right,” she said. “It’s so weird, but I treated it like any regular competition. I got out there and gave it my all.”

That she did, clocking 50.81 to come up just 0.16 away from making the world final. The frustration in her words spoke volumes — ninth in the world was not good enough, not for this 19-year-old. “The competitor in me still wants more and wants a world final. I’ll hopefully go into next year with a new mindset and hope to achieve big things.”

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Mark English was another denied by a sliver, two tenths of a second away from making the world 800m final when he clocked 1:45.78 in Thursday’s semi-final, having very nearly broken the Irish record a day earlier with 1:44.76 in his heat. There was no excuse, nothing he could point to other than a very simple reality: he needed to get just a little better.

“I just didn’t have the gears over the last 200 unfortunately,” he said. “But I will take solace in the fact I’ve got to my first world semi-final in six years.”

Progress — that’s the key metric you’re looking for among Irish athletes. Andrew Coscoran found it in his 1500m heat, where he ran a classy, composed race to advance with ease. But then it left him in the semi-final, and the heavy-legged sensation saw him spat out the back. “I should be able to do rounds back to back,” he said. “That’s what we train for.”

He’ll be back at next month’s Europeans, as will Barr, who will always see these World Championships as the ones that got away. Given his injury, Barr was hugely impressive in his heat, clocking 49.15, and he only needed to run 49.09 in the next round to make his first world final. But a slight error off the eighth hurdle cost him dearly — he finished fifth in 50.08. “Fifty-point — I can run that in my sleep,” he said. “It was set up for me, it’s a missed opportunity.”

Sarah Healy had a championships to forget, as did race walker David Kenny, same for shot putter John Kelly. Though such chastening experiences can prove useful if harnessed in the right way.

Just look at Sarah Lavin, who crashed out in the heats of the Olympics last year, an underperformance that left a deep scar. But she came back better than ever in 2022, making the world indoor final in March and, last night, she survived a mid-race mistake in her 100m hurdles heat in Oregon to power into tonight’s semi-final. Her attitude now? “Anything is possible,” she said.

Louise Shanahan could do no more in the 800m, with recent interruptions taking an edge off her fitness, while Sophie Becker and Chris O’Donnell turned in typically solid showings over 400m. Both, of course, emptied themselves days earlier for the mixed relay, which again finished eighth in a global final, with Jack Raftery emerging as a huge prospect.

All in all, the championships showed that a select few Irish athletes are really not all that far away from some of the world’s best, while for others the gaping chasm will have proven a grisly sight.

Last month, Athletics Ireland unveiled its high-performance plan 2022-2028, and at number one in its objectives was to win an Olympic medal at the Paris Games in 2024. Some laughed that off, deeming it deluded. But if there’s one thing that became clear over the past 10 days: it’s really not that crazy at all.


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