Tuesday 24 October 2017

Wonder kids bring hope of golden future

Eamonn Sweeney

This is Irish sport's Age of the Prodigy. We have never, for example, had a boxer so good at such a young age as Joe Ward. In fact, neither has Europe. Because when the Moate man won his light-heavyweight title in Ankara he was the youngest champion in the 87-year history of the European Championships.

There's something a bit unprecedented too about Lisa Maguire who last week won the European Amateur title in ladies golf aged just 16. Last year, Lisa and her twin Leona became the youngest ever players to represent Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup, the women's Walker Cup.

Irish athletics has never seen anyone so good so young as Kate Veale, whose recent victory in the 5,000m walk at the world youth championships in Lille was the first time we've won gold at this level. Two weekends ago the 17-year-old showed the extraordinary nature of her talent by taking almost a minute off the national senior 3,000m record held by former world silver medallist Gillian O'Sullivan in a time roughly equivalent to walking two miles in 13 minutes. Think about it.

Ciara Mageean's recent silver medal in the European junior 1,500m follows in the footsteps of silvers in the world youths and world juniors. No young Irish athlete has put a run of results like that together before.

Gráinne Murphy's hat-trick of golds at the European Junior championships two years ago was like nothing Irish swimming had ever seen. But the idea that the Wexford woman was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon was scotched earlier this month when Down's Sycerika McMahon bagged two golds and a silver at the European juniors in Belgrade.

Ten or 20 years ago we just didn't see these kind of results from our young athletes. And, as Ward and Murphy have already shown, the gap between underage achievement and senior stardom is not as wide as you might think. We are on the verge of a sporting golden age. Who couldn't be excited about what the future might hold for these wonder kids?

There are so many good results by our best young stars that overseas success has almost come to seem routine. Hence the relatively muted coverage given to the achievement of our schoolboy boxers who took home a gold, three silvers and five bronzes from their European Championships in Grozny. Yet it's kind of extraordinary when you think about it, the cream of Europe competing and nine young Irishmen making the podium. Our gold medal winner Joe Joyce is another Moate boxer. Voted boxer of the championships at last year's event, he might well follow in Ward's footsteps.

We've gotten used to the idea of our boxers as part of the European elite. But great things are also on the verge of happening in athletics. In the past week, Irish athletes had a tremendous European Youth Olympics in the Turkish city of Trabzon with a haul of two golds, one silver and three bronzes, placing them eighth on the medal table. The Irish total of six medals compared very favourably with the ten won by table-toppers Russia, Britain and the Ukraine, while we outperformed nations like Spain, Belarus, Greece and Turkey who'd give us a trouncing at senior level.

There had been a suspicion among the athletics fraternity that there is something very special about the current crop of young athletes, long-standing records have been tumbling, there have been phenomenal individual performances. But the past month, with Veale and Mageean's performances followed by the Trabzon heroics, may well be seen a few years down the line as a watershed moment for the sport.

The medal-winning displays of Kenneth Egan, Darren Sutherland and Paddy Barnes in Beijing seemed to inject confidence into boxing as a whole. Since then, every Irish boxer seems to go into international competition with the belief that he has a chance of a medal. Something similar may be happening among this golden generation of young athletes.

Given our storied middle distance tradition it's gratifying to see that one of our European gold medal winners was the richly talented Letterkenny 1,500m runner Ruairi Finnegan. And there's something particularly heart-warming about the story of our other gold medallist. Because not only did Ben Kiely, from the great Ferrybank club in Waterford city, win gold and set a national record in the 400m hurdles, he was also able to see his twin sister Megan win bronze over the same distance, missing out on silver by a mere two hundredths of a second.

You'd have to be proud of these kids. I don't know if it's patriotism or sentimentality but I always find something stirring about the prospect of young Irish sportsmen and sportswomen lining up against competitors from countries whose resources in terms of population and facilities are so much greater than our own. It seems impossible for them to come through but like Ben Kiely, who had a British athlete behind him in second and a Russian in third, they do so more often than we have a right to expect.

They'll do it again in the future, flying the flag for a little country that punches way above its weight in the ring, on the track, on the golf course and on the field. Our boys and our girls from our cities, our towns and our villages.

Sunday Indo Sport

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport