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Youth success may force Olympic U-turn

Irish athletes who do not attain the A standard qualification for next summer's Olympics in London may still be sent to the games, the Sunday Independent has learned.

Following the unprecedented success of young Irish athletes in the past number of weeks, it has now emerged that the Olympic Council of Ireland would be open to sending some athletes who attain the B standard to the games.

The revelation represents a significant U-turn on an agreement signed between the OCI and Athletics Ireland earlier this year in which it was agreed that only those athletes who achieved the A standard would be sent and that there would be no exceptions.

The consequence of this binding agreement, as it currently stands, is that no more than half a dozen Irish athletes are in line to qualify for London and while the 2012 games are the closest thing Ireland will get to a 'home' games it means that we could see one of the smallest Irish representations at an Olympics in decades.

The announcement to only send A standard athletes was made in February after a meeting between representatives of AI and the OCI. Although it's understood that Athletics Ireland did propose sending an under 23, or development, contingent at the time but this was rejected by the OCI.

The proposed development squad would have been made up of young athletes who achieved the B standard. They could be blooded at the London Games with the hope that they would gain valuable experience for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The news that the OCI and AI have had a change of heart comes in the wake of Ireland's phenomenal medal haul at the European Youth Olympics in Turkey last week.

The team of teenagers arrived home yesterday with two gold, one silver and three bronze medals. There were also four athletes who finished in top eight positions while a total of four Irish youth records were set along with six personal bests, making it Ireland's most successful championships ever.

Before that, there was also success for Ireland at the European Junior and Under 23 Championships where young athletes came home with medals and Irish records.

A source within the OCI now claims that after the stunning progress made by Ireland's young athletes they would be open to reviewing the initial contract they signed with Athletics Ireland.

Three years ago, three athletes just short of the A standard were controversially added to the Irish team for Beijing at the last minute. The decision to send Thomas Chamney, Pauline Curley and Michelle Carey at such a late stage was widely criticised at the time. Both the OCI and AI are understood to be keen to avoid a repeat of that experience.

"We would now look very positively on sending a development squad to London," revealed the source. "It's all about the branding, if you can brand it the development squad for Rio and let people know that these young athletes are there for the experience for the future and that there is a bigger picture. The more exposure these athletes get to big events, the more they get used to the pressure."

And a source within AI admitted that they too would be open to sending B standard athletes and will reassess it closer to the time of the games.

"We have signed up to what we have signed up to and we have no difficulty with that but if it comes closer to the Olympic Games and the Olympic Council say something, we would do as we have done before and we would make a case for certain athletes," said the source.

"The European Championships in Helsinki are on a week before our Olympic team has to be submitted to the OCI and our national championships finish on the eve of the submission date so we will look at everything at that particular time. We'll have a good idea of where we are in whatever events at that particular time."

Following the A standard-only announcement in February, three-time Olympian and former world champion Eamonn Coghlan spoke out about the decision and branded it an injustice.

"There are very few in Ireland who are ever going to win an Olympic gold medal, so why only pick athletes who have that potential?" said Coghlan.

"If an athlete has achieved the best B standard in Ireland, they should go. The cost of sending (athletes) to London compared to Beijing is relatively little and we want to inspire, encourage and motivate the kids coming through the sport, not turn them off."

Sunday Indo Sport