Saturday 24 February 2018

World Championships the true barometer for Irish athletics, not heralded glories at youth level


Olive Loughnane. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Olive Loughnane. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

A flurry of medals, a word of caution: it's been a fantastic few weeks for Irish athletics, but the true health check lies ahead.

Over the next 10 days, the World Championships will lay bare the stark differences between where we are and where we'd like to be, the chances of success hinging on a tiny cluster of athletes we can call world class.

Late last week, shortly after Sarah Healy won Ireland's sixth medal at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Gyor, Hungary, some were asking whether this is the best shape Irish athletics has ever been in. The answer: an emphatic no. After all it's only eight years since the Berlin World Championships when a cast of stars put little-old-Ireland up there with nations several times our size.

Olive Loughnane, retrospectively, won gold in the 20km race walk, Derval O'Rourke finished fourth in the 100m hurdles, David Gillick was sixth in the 400m and Paul Hession wasn't far off making the 200m final. Chances are we won't get near that level of achievement this week.

Join the dots between those performances, though, and you'll notice a line that makes uncomfortable viewing for those who espouse the current structures as the epitome of high-performance.

Loughnane was coached by a Spaniard, Gillick by an Englishman, Hession by a Scot, while Derval O'Rourke was guided by Seán and Terrie Cahill, who had no relationship of note with the association.

In Ireland, coaching has long been seen as a charitable contribution, but the old saying about paying peanuts and getting monkeys isn't always true. Despite the lack of financial incentive, Irish athletics has a surprising depth cast of top-class coaches.

The problem is that they can't be expected to continue devoting their time and energy without financial reward. It's no surprise many of the best athletics minds have transferred their skills elsewhere, taking up roles in team sports or taking flight for paid positions abroad where a price is placed on their skills.

But wait, you say, what about all these medals? Doesn't that mean they're doing something right?

Without doubt, underage coaching is now at a much higher level than a decade ago, the myriad courses and collective gatherings organised by Athletics Ireland meaning your everyday club coach is better equipped to develop talent.

And while there's a long way to go in terms of retaining the best high-performance minds, it was reassuring to hear from Rob Heffernan last week that Athletics Ireland CEO John Foley paid a visit to Cork in recent months with a view to harnessing the world champion's expertise to develop endurance athletics after his retirement.

But back to those medals, and what they mean. Well, if our lens is focused on success at senior level - given the general sporting public only tunes into athletics for a once-a-year championship - they mean very little.

Gina Akpe-Moses becoming European U-20 100m champion was a fantastic achievement, and though her entry to the sport and early development owes much to the Irish system, that run was more a product of the British system, given Akpe-Moses trains under coach Andy Paul in Birmingham, where she has lived for the past three years.

As for the other four medals won at the European Youth Olympics in Gyor, that's an event that resembles a European Championships in the way the Rugby World Cup is a global competition - too many nations have no interest or competitors in the event.

And while there's no denying the vast potential of those medallists - Sarah Healy, Patience Jumbo-Gula, Rhasidat Adeleke and Jade Williams - it's worth remembering Colin Costello took two medals at the same event in 2005, while Emily Maher won double gold in the World Youth Olympics in 1999.

If those names don't ring a bell, it's a good time to ask why not.

Those who did make it through the minefield to senior success - Rob Heffernan, Ciara Mageean, Thomas Barr and Mark English - will go to the line in London aware that they fly the flag not just for Ireland but also the system.

But while all have benefited from it in terms of financial and medical back-up, they have all been developed by coaches who operate outside it. For those medals in Grosseto or Gyor to turn into medals in Tokyo, Paris or LA - the venues for the next three Olympics - coaching here has to be moved front and centre. Otherwise our best will either flee to find the expertise they need, or worse, simply fade away.

Irish Independent

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