Ireland sent a track and field team of 17 to Rio – relatively on par with the dispatches to London and Beijing. But instead of increasing the number of athletes sent to Japan in four years time, Sonia O’Sullivan yesterday insisted resources should be focused on a small group of elite and improving performers.
400m hurdler Tom Barr was the sole Irish track athlete to finish in the top 10 of his event – the Ferrybank sprinter was .05 of a second off a bronze medal - and O’Sullivan believes the emphasis should be on improving results rather than increasing the presence of the green singlet at the next Games.
“The Olympics just gone weren’t too bad from an Irish perspective. To see Thomas [Barr] competing with the best in the world is likely to inspire a lot of people.
“No, I don’t think the team needs to be any larger next time around. We might as well have the same sized team and make it better. Why get larger? Bigger isn’t always better,” said O’Sullivan who was present at the Midleton Park Hotel where she received an East Cork & District Sports Award.
“We maybe need to improve the quality, rather than trying to get more people out there, and share the resources among less people rather than trying to spread it. It is nice for people to go to the Olympics, but I think it is better to have a small group of people and focus on getting really, really good results from them.”
Said focus, however, must not be exclusive to the likes of Barr, Ciara Mageean (1,500 semi -finalist), Fionnuala McCormack (20th in the marathon) and Mark English (800m semi- finalist), according to the former World and European 5,000m champion.
The relevant bodies, she said, must also invest in one or two rising stars. 800m runner Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, presently studying at O’Sullivan’s alma mater, Villnaova, is one she identifies as a significant prospect.
“Ireland tends to hang off two or three standout names. When you do that, it is like putting your eggs in one basket. You do have to diversify a little bit, you have to have a few on the edge; the upcoming runners.
“People have to be brave in the decisions they make and not have the one [qualifying] standard. Sometimes you have to be open-minded and give people an opportunity who are young and upcoming and may rise to the occasion at an Olympics rather than forcing them to meet particular standards when it doesn’t really matter if you meet it or not.
“Síofra is definitely someone I thought was very unlucky not to get to the Olympics this year. She was so, so close. I would hope to see her progress over the next two years at Villnaova and get some more racing experience and get onto Irish teams in the future.”
Rob Heffernan is unlikely to be on the plane to Tokyo in 2020 but did hint after his sixth place finish over 50km that the 38-year old isn’t ready to step off the road just yet. O’Sullivan doesn’t see any reason why he should not continue.
“Rob put in his usual stellar performance in Rio. He is weighing up whether or not he stays going. But he loves it, loves the hard work, loves the hard training and is still very competitive so I don’t see any reason why he would stop.”
Her advice to the five-time Olympian and 2013 World champion?
“If you are enjoying it, if you have the support of your family and the motivation to keep doing it, what else would you rather be doing. It is an amazing lifestyle and he has got a great set-up with the different training camps that he goes to.
“So, as long as he can keep doing it, I would keep doing it. When I was around his age and around that level towards the end of my career, people were asking you more questions about when you are retiring whereas now people want you to keep going because they actually appreciate what you are and what they’ve got. They realise that there is not someone just like you around the corner.
“It is all about your mental attitude when it gets to that stage. People at that age have worked really hard, have so much training behind them. The determining factor is if you are mentally able to keep going.”