Tuesday 16 July 2019

Time to hang up on Liveline Man

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

He's never played a game nor coached a team. He couldn't run a mile without collapsing. Yet he's a very influential figure in Irish sport. He's Liveline Man.

Liveline Man is constantly outraged by Ireland's failures in the Olympics. Athletics is his particular bete noire. He looks at his fellow countrymen and countrywomen trailing behind Africans and Americans, failing to make finals, break records or set personal bests. And he reaches for his phone and Talks To Joe. "Why," he wants to know, "are we sending these runners to the Olympics when they're not winning anything. It's an outrage."

In a sane society we wouldn't pass much heed on Liveline Man, especially given that the only bit of athletics he ever sees is the Olympics. He won't look at runners again for the next four years. Yet I believe that fear of being ridiculed by Liveline Man may be driving the Olympic Council of Ireland's insistence that our athletes will only be sent to the London games if they achieve the A qualifying standard, even though the B standard is considered perfectly acceptable by many other countries.

Back in February, Eamonn Coghlan, who knows a thing or two about top-level competition and is the chair of the Irish Sports Council's high performance sub-committee, described the OCI's stance as "an injustice," adding, "if the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee are accepting B Standards and we in Ireland are saying A Standards only, well personally I don't agree with that . . . the cost of sending athletes to London compared with Beijing is very little and we want to inspire, encourage and motivate the kids coming through the sport, not turn them off."

Last Sunday in this paper, middle-distance runner Thomas Chamney called for athletes who achieve the B Standard to be brought to London, a call echoed that night on RTE by Jerry Kiernan who sees the London Olympics as a golden opportunity for our promising young athletes to gain valuable experience. Yet the OCI remain obdurate and insist it's A Standards only for London. Why? Because Irish sporting bodies have higher standards than their foreign counterparts? Perhaps. But fear of Liveline Man might have something to do with it too.

Liveline Man and the OCI would seem to agree that there's no point sending athletes to the Olympics if they don't have a hope of winning a medal. I mean, what was the use of sending someone out to the Sydney Olympics to finish 35th in the women's 20km walk? Or sending a hurdler to the Athens games to finish second last in her heat? Surely those performances show that those athletes shouldn't have been there in the first place? Except that the walker was Olive Loughnane and the hurdler was Derval O'Rourke and it's likely that the experience picked up in their first unsuccessful major championships stood to them when they subsequently won medals at world and European level.

That's why Kiernan's call for as many young athletes to be sent over to London as possible makes sense. We have a horde of talented youngsters coming through who can only benefit from the experience. The OCI should make the most of the fact that for once the Olympics are right on our doorstep so cost won't be a major factor.

Of course one of Liveline Man's great complaints is that we send too many competitors to the Olympics who are happy just to have qualified. It's the kind of statement which relies on an absolute ignorance of the amount of hard work it takes to attain an Olympic qualifying time. Because even a B Standard requires a ferocious level of dedication which is beyond most ordinary mortals. It certainly deserves the reward of a place in the greatest sporting festival on earth.

Athletics Ireland should fight for the rights of B Standard athletes. And the OCI should stop worrying about Liveline Man.

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