Sunday 21 January 2018

With progress comes hope

Better structures and support are having an impact on Irish sport, writes John O'Brien

On Wednesday, Natalya Coyle, a 21-year-old modern pentathlete from Tara, Co Meath, boarded a flight for Amsterdam, the first step of a long-haul journey that would take her to the teeming city of Chengdu in south-west China.

In Chengdu, she would join 35 other hopefuls, scrapping it out for the right to be crowned world champion but with her eye set firmly on an even greater prize -- a place at the London Olympics.

She would have made the journey in relatively high spirits. Before yesterday, Coyle stood at No 33 on the world rankings and that left her in prime position to secure one of the seven remaining qualification spots for London. The long, arduous shift she put in over the past year, criss-crossing the globe, amassing hard experience and crucial ranking points, helped lay the foundation. Yesterday just had to be about consolidation.

So she did what she had to do. After a shaky start she gained ground through the day and held on grimly to claim the final qualifying spot for London, ensuring she would be Ireland's first Olympic pentathlete since Moscow, 1980.

Coyle's achievement, though, held a significance beyond her chosen sport. In qualifying, she became the 54th Irish athlete to reach the Olympic standard and that equals the number who competed in Beijing four years ago. Consider that there are still five weeks remaining before the Olympic Council of Ireland ratifies the team and you have a decent measure of how far Irish sport has come.

In fact, it reads better than that because, for all the bleating about the need to raise standards after Sydney and Athens, for all the rants against so-called "Olympic tourists", the OCI still relented at the last minute before Beijing and selected four B-standard athletes. This time it is difficult to see a repeat. With a team of A-standard athletes likely to be well in excess of 60, it is impossible to see a need or justification for it.

Strangely, you don't have to think back too far to recall when Ireland's Olympic prospects were swaddled in a shroud of negativity. In February last year, the OCI announced its rigid A-standard-only policy and, as recently as last winter, when fewer than 20 Irish athletes had booked their places, the criticism was fierce and sustained. Eamonn Coghlan is among those who remain unimpressed by the A-standard-only line.

Coghlan's argument, a perfectly reasonable one, is that by disregarding B-standards, outstanding prospects like Ciara Mageean are potentially denied an opportunity to gain vital Olympic experience and that Ireland, as a weaker nation, should be taking advantage of more lenient standards. Yet, for those in the vanguard, it is precisely that delineation as a weaker nation that needs to be challenged. Allow lower standards and you give athletes a comfort blanket they might be instinctively inclined to accept.

"If you raise the bar athletes will rise to meet it," says Gary Keegan, director of the Irish Institute of Sport. "It's been shown in many nations. If you don't set the bar a bit higher, you're basically suggesting to athletes you don't really believe they can achieve it. When you have performance directors being strong on setting standards and communicating that well to athletes, then nobody is under any illusions about what is expected."

From his perch in Abbotstown, Keegan observes Irish athletes performing on the world stage with increasing satisfaction. He sees Eoin Rheinisch pulling it out of the fire in Germany to nail his third Olympic qualification, the relief in Katie Taylor's features when she edged over the line in China, he sees sports like Judo, pentathlon and gymnastics returning to the party following long absences, people heading to London not just to make up the numbers, what he likes to call "quality qualifications".

None of this is haphazard or accidental, of course. According to Irish Sports Council figures, Irish athletes claimed 55 medals at senior and junior level in major championships in 2011, up from 31 the previous year, both vast increases from the equivalent years in the 2008 Olympic cycle, an obvious testament to more streamlined governing bodies and to continued investment in athletes and the support structures around them.

"People always said we had the athletes, the potential was there," says Keegan. "If you can put the right structures and expertise around them, then the better the chance of realising it. For this Games we've a lot more athletes based in Ireland. They're bedded in to better systems. There's more quality planning going on around them. They have more contact with professionals than prior to Beijing and some of it is beginning to pay off."

Irish sport remains a work in progress, though. The Institute was initially established in 2005, but its wheels weren't effectively greased until Keegan's arrival in 2008. For all the good work done, it's still only a year since they developed the capacity to offer medical and other clinical services to athletes and, in that time, there has been a noticeable increase in the footfall through the Institute.

The benefits of this are obvious. Not just a place for athletes to receive expert support but where they can meet other athletes, mingle in an environment that reeks of purpose and professionalism, a far cry from the career of globetrotting isolation that used to be their lot. How Martin Fagan, for one, might have benefited while his running career was spiralling into oblivion in America.

It's nearly 10 years now since Keegan joined boxing's high-performance unit and helped devise a programme that made them one of the most respected teams in Europe. In a sense that was Year One for Irish sport. It showed what could be done when proper structures were implemented, when the athletes could have total faith in the support staff around them and had no qualms or inhibitions about setting grand targets.

Other sports have diligently followed. Think of the shame that had enveloped Irish swimming just a few short years ago and the huge strides it has taken under Sarah Keane, a determined and capable chief executive.

When Sycerika McMahon and Melanie Nocher achieved the standard in Hungary last week, it brought Ireland's Olympic representation to four, which may sound

unremarkable, but it hints at a growing depth of young talent that should flower in the years ahead.

Think too of the remarkable progress Irish cricket has made under Warren Deutrom. Or the fact that the boxers look forward to another productive Olympics with no internal politics clouding their horizon. Ditto for athletics. Two years ago, Irish sailing officials were brave enough to target three qualified boats for London. They were out by two. They got five.

So far, so encouraging. Yet, as he surveys a brightening landscape, Keegan sees cause for hope rather than celebration. Not that it would be in his nature anyway. Ahead he sees an ongoing multi-pronged battle: against unrealistic expectations, against the temptation, in tough times, to target sport for cuts in investment and the risk of losing the people who have made progress possible.

"People will look and say, okay, can we turn this into medals? Yes we can. But I'm not sure London is the place to be asking that question. The real question is what's actually different now?

What's the legacy here? If we can point to things in place that are impacting positively as we approach London, then we can feel really confident about the next four years going into Rio."

The old political slogan seems so much more apposite in this instance. A lot done, but so much more still to do.

Sunday Indo Sport

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