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Friday 20 April 2018

Bewildering exclusions just don't add up

Double standards have left Irish athletes dazed and confused, writes John O'Brien

All week he remained silent, the growing anger and frustration he felt kept bottled up inside. Then the days passed, support poured in from family and friends, from coaches and athletes he trained with in London, from people in the athletics' community he didn't even know. By the end of the week Rory Chesser knew silence was no longer an option. There were things that needed to be said, hard questions that needed to be asked.

Seven days ago Chesser was informed by Athletics Ireland that he wasn't being selected to run in the European Championships, which begin in Helsinki on Wednesday. This was despite the fact that the 25-year-old Ennis-born athlete had run inside the European standard of 3:41.40 for the 1500m four times and achieved the Irish B standard on three occasions.

"There are three spots available for each event," Chesser says, "and we're sending just one 100m athlete, Paul Robinson. I think there's something like 42 events at the Europeans and yet we're sending barely 30 athletes and that includes two relay squads. It just doesn't seem to make any sense. A lot of people can't understand it."

For Chesser, though, non-selection is only the beginning of his grievances. After being informed of the decision not to send him, it subsequently transpired that Chesser and 400m runner Brian Murphy had been entered for the Championships, a curious anomaly which has perplexed many in the sport and for which the athletes have sought answers from the federation. As of yet, he says, no explanation has been forthcoming.

"It looks like someone went ahead and entered our names on Sunday night after we were told we wouldn't be travelling," he says. "But we can only speculate. Did somebody go against the high performance director and put our names on the list? We can't say for sure, but it looks that way because we're listed as entrants on the European Athletics website."

The seeds of controversy were sown when AI published its policy document for Helsinki late last year. They set a marker by demanding significantly higher standards than those laid down by the European federation, but those standards needed to be applied on a rigidly consistent basis and that, Chesser argues, has not been achieved.

"The reason they gave for not sending me was that I competed in Barcelona in 2010 so I don't qualify as a development athlete. But the fact is there are at least two other athletes on the team who don't qualify under that criteria and yet are still going on B standards. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy for them that they're going, but there's a lack of consistency here and that's my problem."

Both Chesser and Murphy appealed but the original decisions were upheld. There were others in the same boat too: the 400m hurdler Justine Kinney and distance runner Maria McCambridge among them. McCambridge had the European standard in the 5000m and, after the trauma of missing out on the Olympics, this will have come as another bitter blow.

"I've no problem with high standards being set," Chesser continues. "You have to have a policy. But the fact they're clearly breaking their own policy is what annoys me. If they say they'll accept only A standards and treat everybody the same then fine.

"I wouldn't have an issue with that. But it's like there's one rule for some athletes and another for the likes of me and Brian. That's a little hard to take."

He says he has never felt in better shape. "I hit 3:41 in 2010," he says. "I hit it three or four times this year. I didn't just run the B standard once, I did it on multiple occasions. I did it twice in three days. I started the season hoping to make an Olympic B standard with the Europeans as a Plan B. It's devastating not to make it to be honest."

Chesser competed at a meet in Norway last week and when he told other athletes that he was only borderline for European selection they were astonished. "People genuinely can't understand it," he says. "My training partner James Brewer, who'll be competing for Great Britain, and my coach are amazed that I have the European standard and yet won't be running. It doesn't make any sense to them."

As things stand Chesser's name is on the list of entrants and he supposes there is no ostensible reason why he couldn't travel and take his place in the 1500m field. Murphy will make the journey as a member of the 4x400m relay squad and, technically, could compete in the 400m individual event. Yet Chesser, at least, has no intention of pursuing that avenue.

"I've had people in touch offering to pay my way to Finland," he says, "but I don't want to do it like that. Without the backing of the federation, I wouldn't be in the right frame of mind to run. I'm still hoping they'll change their minds.

"The thing about it is, myself and Brian aren't funded. The only thing Athletics Ireland is doing for us right now is stopping us from competing at the European Championships and I don't think that's right."

IRISH TEAM FOR HELSINKI

Men's 100m: J Smyth (City of Derry).

200m: S Colvert (Crusaders) and P Hession (Athenry).

400m: B Gregan (Clonliffe).

110m Hurdles: B Reynolds (N Down).

400m Hurdles: T Barr (Ferrybank), J Harvey (UUJ).

1500m: P Robinson (St Coca's).

10,000m: M Kenneally (Clonliffe), D Rooney (Raheny).

4x400m: D Gillick (DSD), B Gregan, B Murphy

(Crusaders), T Barr, J Harvey (UUJ), T Crowe

(Dooneen).

Women's 100m: A Foster (North Down).

400m: J Cuddihy (Kilkenny CH).

400m Hurdles: J Barr (Ferrybank).

1500m: C Mageean (UCD), O Drumm (UCC).

Steeplechase: S Reilly (Sli Chulainn).

10,000m: F Britton (Kilcoole).

Pole Vault: T Pena (Finn Valley).

4x400m: J Cuddihy, C Bergin (DSD), M Heffernan (Togher), M Carey (Dublin Striders), C Cuddihy (KCH), J Mills (B&A).

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