Sunday, August 24, 2008

Athletics: What Next?

By contrast with the boxers, Irish athletics performances at these Games - with a few notable exceptions - has been truly depressing.
With respect to the Beijing team manager Patsy McGonagle, who is a good man, we suspect that elite Irish athletics is in terminal decline. A major factor is the deep stench hanging over the sport which began with Ben Johnson and hasn't gone away.
Virtually every major sprinter of the past two decades has been stripped of his or her credibility sooner or later. Systematic, out-of-season testing does pay dividends however, which is one reason why the American sprinters weren't quite as dominant (we suspect) this Games; jailing Marion Jones sent out a clear and unequivocal signal.
But cautious though we must be about slandering the innocent, we have to question - like anyone else with a brain - the dominance of groups of athletes from parts of the world where dope testing quite simply doesn't happen. And it's not just the Caribbean we are talking about.
Catching seven Russian athletes before the Games and a bald statement that systematic doping is part of the Russian system did nothing to reassure when watching a new world record in the women's steeplechase for instance. And why do no Africans - ever - get caught?
Against this background, Alistair Cragg is quite right to say that athletics has changed beyond imagining since the days when Coghlan, Treacy, Flynn, O'Mara and Marcus O'Sullivan represented Ireland with distinction on the tracks of the world. With the arrival of increasing numbers of African women, it has changed even since Sonia O'Sullivan's silver in Sydney.
Distance runners these days see no point in thrashing themselves running 100 and more miles a week. Because of the African domination, they still won't get anywhere, so why not enjoy themselves on the domestic circuit and have a life?
As for sprinters - Paul Hession is as good as we are going to get. That's pretty good by the way - we really could have a useful 4x400 team, and if someone had made sure our lads had travelled to the right competitions last year, we might even have had such a team in Beijing.
Is there a way back for athletics? We will always have the odd good performance - such as Eileen O'Keeffe at the World Championships last year - but that is as good as we can expect. Luck plays a part - Derval O'Rourke, David Gillick and Alistair Cragg ran brilliantly in 2006, but not this time. Joanne Cuddidy was injured; so was O'Keeffe; nothing more sinister than bad luck. Bad luck also afflicted Craig Mottram, Philips Idowu, Kelly Sotherton and countless others in Beijing. It's the way it goes. Still, how depressing it was to see both Cragg and Fagan not even finishing their races in the final weekend of the Games. Morale clearly was not high in the Irish camp.
Coming up with a prescription for the future isn't easy. Not reassuring is the job description for the job of High Performance Director which AAI currently has on their website, which is depressingly full of words like "pathways", "vision", ' best practise" "feedback loops"etc. Here's just one choice sentence from the job spec: "Creation of best practise integrated coaching pathways". Such waffle makes you wonder if they have any real idea of what they're looking for.
Boxing had Gary Keegan to organise the athletes and a Billy Walsh to coach them - plain talking, intelligent men, who above all are superb communicators. They kept it simple and it worked. Is there anyone in Irish athletics to match them?
We can think of one. Jamie Costin is already the athlete's rep on the AAI council. He'd be worth a call.


Legal Mayo said...

I have been a long time follower of sport, and I am disappointed that we do not have a Sonia or John Tracey or Eamon Coghlan or Catherina McKiernan these days. It seems to me that it will take pure luck to produce athletes of this calibre again. To be honest, the public aren't in love with Athletics. Back in the 70's and 80's we has little to cheer on the playing fields with our national soccer team, rugby etc losing most of the time. GAA was dominated by Kerry, and Dublin, and Kilkenny and Cork. Nowadays, I don't believe that we are producing youngsters who are tough enough mentally and physically to excel at really gruelling sports like middle and long distance running. Genetically, we seem to be at a disadvantage in sprinting which makes Hession's achievements so much more remarkable. A friend of mine told me that he was recently attended at a coaching session of an underage GAA team given by the football coach of St Jarlath's college in Tuam, which has a great tradition in producing gaelic footballers. He mentioned that 30 years ago, as part of a fitness test for new first years, they would ask these 12 and 13 year olds to climb a rope suspended from the ceiling of their sports hall. At that time 80-90% could perform the task. Today, he said 80-90% fail. The reality is that only a handful of youngsters are ever going to have the talent to reach the olympics. I suspect most of these are being lost to team sports, because it's easier, and society today is always looking for something easier. What would it take to keep these kids in athletics, when it is hard and lonely, when they can play rugby or football or hurling instead, and be recognised for their talents locally? If the parish team wins the county title under 12, there is recognition and plaudits. If a boy wins the national athletics title at 800 metres, apart from his family, does anyway take notice? Does his local paper report on the race? Is there someone there who will say to him "you could be an olympian some day?" And if they do say that, does he wonder if he will be branded a failure like Alastair Cragg Derval O'Rourke and the others if he doesn't win medals.

I don't know what the answer is...we seem to be very competitive in racewalking, and that is a tough tough sport, but a minority event within a minority sport, and perhaps the africans will turn their attentions to that soon. Eileen O'Keeffe was injured, but she remains a great talent. I read that she's not allowed practice her event in Santry, because she would damage the surface for the local soccer team who use the grass area. This is ludicrous. What is needed is to get these minority sports being taught at a basic level in schools, and the sports governing bodies need to spot talent at under age national championships, community games etc, and select them for expert coaching in the field events at an early age. They need to be made feel special, so that they will stick with the sport. Otherwise they will be lost to Soccer GAA and Rugby

Lindie Naughton said...

Very well put and reflecting my own thoughts as a coach. On a wet night it will be me and a few 40-plus old hacks who turn out for training.
A further problem is that youngsters have no discipline - they don't stick at things. But that could be corrected with an imaginative coach; I wouldn't say many of the youngsters in boxing clubs start out with great attention spans.
The Eileen story is getting out of hand. The new hammer cage was wrongly poured initially which was when she got the injury. But then they did it right - I had a look as it myself as recently as yesterday. She could also have come over to Belfield to train. Blaming the supposed lack of facilities is too easy.