Monday 11 December 2017

Britton must capitalise on golden opportunity

Absence of some big guns in Helsinki puts medal glory on table, says Eamonn Sweeney

It's all about Fionnuala Britton now. In truth, it always has been from an Irish point of view because the Wicklow runner, who runs in the 10,000m final at 3.25 our time today, was the only Irish athlete to have a realistic medal chance at the European Championships in Helsinki.

A really wild optimist might have construed an outside medal hope for Joanne Cuddihy in the 400m or for our 4x400m women's relay team should a couple of the big guns not get it quite right but the burden of redeeming a pretty undistinguished championship seemed bound to fall on the European cross-country champion.

The omens are good. Since moving from the 3,000m steeplechase to the 5,000m and 10,000m, Britton has been in superb form on the track. She is ranked No 3 in Europe over the longer distance this year and, with the top two athletes, Yelizaveta Grechisnikova of Russia and Sara Moreira of Portugal, absent from today's race, has every chance of taking gold. It would certainly be a grave disappointment if she didn't come away with a medal of some hue.

However, this comes with the caveat that Britton is relatively inexperienced over the distance and that the tactical demands of track running make it a very different animal from cross-country running. Catherina McKiernan, for example, was never the same force away from the grass. And Britton's main rivals will probably be a couple of runners with enormous amounts of championship experience, Britain's Jo Pavey and Germany's Sabrina Mockenhaupt.

The remarkable Pavey, who mixed it with the invincible Africans to finish fourth in the 2007 World Championships 5,000m, is now 38 but the 31.32.22 she ran when finishing second in the European Cup in Bilbao in June was her fastest time over the distance in four years and is just three seconds slower than Britton's best. Mockenhaput has a best of 31.14.21 and even though that was set four years ago she has run a decent 31.36.76 this season and is a threat. Portugal's Dulce Felix, who came second to Britton in last year's European Cross-Country Championships, can't be discounted and neither can the Moroccan-born Nadia Ejjafini of Italy, fourth that day.

But there's no way of getting around the fact that this is a golden opportunity for Britton. Only four of Europe's top 10 this year, herself, Pavey, Mockenhaupt and Ejjafini, will be running and the chances are we may well witness a special Irish sporting moment this afternoon.

Elsewhere, the Irish performances have been a mixture of the good and the bad and the overall impression has been somewhat underwhelming. It's fair to point out that Ireland sent what is pretty much a development squad. There are no walking events, Derval O'Rourke, Deirdre Ryan, Ciarán ó Lionáird and Alistair Cragg have all opted to save themselves for the Olympics, while David Gillick is only present as a member of the 4x400m relay squad. So highlights were always going to be in short supply.

Then again it's very much a development championship and did present the opportunity for some of our promising young athletes to make a big breakthrough. Fifty yards from the end of the 400m, it looked as though Brian Gregan had done just that as he lay in the bronze-medal position. Sadly, Gregan, hampered by a groin injury, faded away to sixth in the final strides but he has enjoyed a good championships as few would have tipped him as a medal prospect beforehand. It seems likely that we'll be seeing him in more big finals in the future. But here's the rub. Talented though Gregan is, he might never again have a major medal so clearly in his sights. The top five in Europe were missing from his final which included just two of the continent's top 10 over the distance. Pavel Maslak of the Czech Republic's winning time was the slowest since 1978.

The 400m hurdler Jessie Barr was another who seized the day. Her unexpected achievement in reaching the final was all the more notable because this was one of the highest quality events in the championships. That final saw five of the top seven times in Europe this year with winner Irina Davydova of Russia producing the fastest time in the world. In the final itself Barr looked spun out by the exertions required to get there and finished last but, all the same, the 22-year-old Ferrybank runner served notice that she's one to watch in the future. That Davydova is just a year older than her and bronze medallist Anna Yaroshchuk of the Ukraine actually a few months younger shows how difficult that future may be. But Barr certainly has the ability to threaten the Irish record and rival the achievements of her fellow Waterford athlete Susan Smith who made the European and World finals of this event in the mid 1990s.

Another couple of athletes who exceeded expectations were Stephanie Reilly with her progress to the final of the 3,000m steeplechase and Paul Hession, who nobody seemed to consider as a potential 200m finalist. The Galwayman may have had the rub of the green when a semi-final opponent's disqualification paved the way for him but his seasonal best in the heats showed that he remains a consummate championship performer.

Joanne Cuddihy was not so much disappointing as frustrating. A severely weakened women's 400m, the top seven runners in Europe were absent, presented the prospect of a much deserved medal for the Kilkenny runner. Instead she was disqualified for running out of her lane in the heats and had to watch a final where the bronze was won in 51.94, almost half a second slower than Cuddihy has run this season. The gold went to Moa Hjelmer of Sweden whose previous major achievement was to finish second in last year's European Juniors. Cuddihy, disqualified for a false start in last year's World Championships, might well have missed the biggest opportunity of her career.

Steven Colvert was also disqualified but had run poorly in his heat even if he would have made it through as a fastest loser. Regarded as a potential finalist, the 200m runner has been in marvellous form this summer, usurping Hession's place as the king of the longer sprint and coming within a few hundredths of making the Olympic 'A' standard. This was an unexpected setback but in his defence Colvert wasn't the only athlete who seemed thrown severely off his stride by the bends on the Helsinki track. The unusually high number of disqualifications and complaints suggested that the championship organisers had got things seriously wrong.

Tori Pena's failure to reach the final of the pole vault, Jason Smith's inability to come anywhere near the 'A' standard in the 100m and the women's 1,500m, where both Ciara Mageean and Orla Drumm finished near the back of the field in the heats in times far below their personal bests, were other downers. There were a number of performances which made you wonder why the Athletics Ireland saw fit to deny Brian Murphy and Rory Chesser the opportunity to compete in Helsinki as individuals. They certainly wouldn't have done any worse than some of the athletes who were sent.

David Gillick's announcement that he'd given up on the Olympics once more raises the issue of why the Sports Council saw fit to award him €40,000 in high performance funding at the start of this year when such a dénouement was always likely, magnificent servant though the Dublin runner has been to Irish athletics.

There was a strange attenuated feel to the championships, the absence of so many athletes showing that the decision to hold the Europeans so close to the Olympics was a disastrous one. So weakened were the fields that some of the gold medals might need to have asterisks put beside them in the record books. Hjelmer's winning time in the 400m would have placed her sixth in 2010 and eighth in 2006. You have to go back to 1971 for a slower gold medal performance.

In the circumstances, you'd wonder if some of the missing Irish athletes might not come to regret missing out on Helsinki. Asterisk or not, a European medal is something people will remember for a long time. Reaching the Olympic semi-finals, maybe not so much.

The performances of those who went were reasonably acceptable but compared to the previous championships in Barcelona, regarded as slightly disappointing at the time, where O'Rourke won silver, Robert Heffernan took a couple of fourths and both Hession and Gillick were very competitive in their finals, there was little enough to cheer about from an Irish point of view, Gregan excepted. What was lacking were unexpected bonuses along the lines of ó Lionáird's progress to last year's World Championship final or Eileen O'Keeffe's sixth place in the 2007 Worlds. At the time of writing, we lie 29th in the placing table, 12 slots below where we finished two years ago.

In the long term, this month's World Junior Championships in Barcelona, where we will field by far our strongest team ever, may well be a far more significant event in terms of the future of Irish athletics.

RTE is to be commended for the scale and excellence of their coverage, with the great Jerry Kiernan being ably backed up by the likes of Thomas Chamney and Ailis McSweeney, but there has been little thus far to inspire the home television audience or to tempt sports-mad kids into taking a chance on athletics. Perhaps that will all change today.

There's a lot riding on Fionnuala Britton.

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