Sunday 8 December 2019

Sinead Kissane: Girls of summer restoring joy and faith in athletics

Sarah Healy: Double gold Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Sarah Healy: Double gold Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

The performances of the Irish girls at the European U-18 Championships in Hungary last weekend brought home everything that's good and real about sport.

It wasn't just how they ran which tugged at the heart. It was also how 17-year-old Sarah Healy barely stopped once she crossed the finish line in the 1,500m final after winning her second gold medal of the championships before running over to the stand to receive a big hug from her dad.

It was the smiles and tears of joy of 15-year-old Rhasidat Adeleke after she won the 200m final and yet she showed a maturity beyond her years when she spoke about not wanting to let the pressure of the race hamper her form.

There was the captivating video of Sonia O'Sullivan watching her daughter, Sophie, run the 800m final. How we spent years nervously watching Sonia run in major championships. And no matter what happened on the track, whenever she ran into the arms of her dad, it used to induce a collective assurance that everything was going to be ok. And now, here was Sonia in the role of parent - arms waving uncontrollably, head-in-hands - unable to watch at times as her daughter ran her way to a silver medal. It was seeing the reaction and joy of her mother that made Sophie's performance even more wonderful.

There can be such a volume and concentration on elite and professional senior sport that the wonder and innocence of underage sport can get completely lost.

While there's the understandable concern of not wanting to load too much pressure and expectation on youth, sometimes it's at this level that sport can be viewed and enjoyed in its purest form.

Not everything about sport should be limited to populism, elitism and Neymar confusing football with playing the victim in a slaying scene in the Globe Theatre.

This was only the second edition of the European U18 Championships.

With a few different factors coming together, including huge improvement in facilities, a more diverse population and a class of incredibly talented female athletes like those mentioned above as well as Patience Jumbo-Gula, Ciara Neville, Gina Akpe-Moses, Sommer Lecky, Molly Scott (the list goes on), Irish athletics has never had it so good at these levels.

It is natural to feel more invested in a sportsperson's career when you follow their progress from a young age.

It is also natural that the excitement of watching young talent splinters into an excitement of where their potential could take them in the future.

But making that transition into senior is rarely as smooth as our hopes for a young athlete would like them to be.

"Success at this level (U18) is absolutely wonderful but at the same time we shouldn't set them up for massive expectations going forward," Paul McNamara, Athletics Ireland director of high performance, said.

"The transition rates, globally, from a successful youth athlete to a successful senior athlete are quite low (25 per cent).

"We don't have the luxury of a massive amount of talent and it really is incumbent upon us as a NGB (National Governing Body) to try and transition as many of those athletes as possible into senior athletics over the next four, six to eight years.

" Ideally, in 2024 in Paris and 2028 you'd love to see these athletes being involved and still firing at a very high level."

With this new underage talent coming through, it seems there will be a change in approach in terms of what athletes Athletics Ireland will focus on in the future.

"I think we're shifting resources going forward from a large cohort of targeted athletes to a much smaller cohort of focused athletes that really are tracking towards being world-class," McNamara said.

"I think above and beyond that (the carding system) we as a NGB need to take much greater responsibility in terms of the coaching set-up.

"At the moment, we're investing in a full-time sprints co-ordinator (Daniel Kilgallon was appointed in May) that we've never had before, a full-time endurance co-ordinator who's about to be appointed and we're looking for a full-time field events co-ordinator in the near future."

The feats and performances of Healy, Adeleke et al shows other teenage school-going girls that sport and school can co-exist during these years.

The drop-off rate in the number of girls playing sport in this country has long been noted.

In the Irish Sports Monitor (ISM) 2015-2017 figures showed a decline in participation of females playing sport from 81.4pc at age 16 to 50.1pc at age 20.

Spare time

In the Children Sport Participation and Physical Activity Study, 2010, the biggest reason (45.1pc) given by girls in post-primary years for not participating in more sports clubs or school-organised activities was because they said they didn't have enough spare time.

But maybe what could also act as an encouragement for teenage girls is the sight of girls in their own peer group and age bracket mixing it with the best internationally.

Schoolboy rugby is a huge phenomenon in this country which comes with TV coverage.

There is no equivalent for girls. But the reverberations of last weekend's successes at the Europeans and at this week's World U-20s were seen all over social media and on TV.

How good it is for teenage girls to see other teenage girls showcase their talent on a huge stage for everyone to see.

"I see a greater maturity in the modern-day athlete. The abiding sentiment from last week wasn't necessarily the medal count or the PBs but it was how well this group of kids gelled as a group," McNamara added.

"There was nobody coming off that plane in Dublin airport (last Monday) sensing that was a tough week, that was a lot of pressure.

"They're coming off with smiles, new friends, all the things that sport intended to be.

"None of these athletes are overcooked, they're all undercooked, they're all quite raw. That all suggests these athletes are thriving on talent."

International senior athletics is a sport which can leave you feeling cold with doubts over whether you can believe what you see.

But this class of Irish girls are restoring a joy, faith and popularity for a sport which badly needs it. Bravo girls!

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