That was obvious last weekend at the European Cross Country Championships in Slovakia, where the Irish were unable to take home a medal for just the third time in eight years.
Back in 1994, Catherina McKiernan took gold at the inaugural edition of the event, and for her there’s a two-part process required if the new crop are to get back on the podium.
First, the role played by Athletics Ireland in seeking feedback from former athletes – both those who climbed to the very top of the sport and those who fell by the wayside.
Speaking at the launch of the inaugural Kia Race Series – an eight-race schedule of road races to take place between March and September next year – McKiernan encouraged those in the national governing body to seek the wisdom of those who have left the sport.
“They should get all the information from them and their experiences, things they did incorrectly and things that worked,” she said.
“Talk to the athletes that didn’t make it and find out the reasons: why did they stop or drop off?”
It has, after all, been seven years since Ireland struck gold in the U23 team event at the European Cross Country, which is typically a strong predictor of success in the senior ranks. However, only one of the six athletes on that team, John Coghlan, competed in this year’s national championships, finishing 21st. Most of the others have long since disappeared from the sport.
“It’d be a good idea to speak to them and ask the question: why did you finish?” said McKiernan.
“Why have you no interest and what could be done to keep you interested?” In addition to the onus on Athletics Ireland, though, McKiernan believes that Irish distance runners need to take more personal responsibility. “The athletes have to train hard and that’s it,” she said.
“You can encourage them to a certain amount but they can’t be there to make sure they’re not going out on a Saturday so they’re able to get up on a Sunday to do their long run. You can’t blame an organisation for that, it’s the individual themselves. If you’re serious about it, you’ll do what you have to do yourself.”
For the first time in many years, Fionnuala McCormack was not Ireland’s leading finisher at the Europeans last weekend, her 12th-place finish in the senior women’s race behind that of U20 athlete Sophie Murphy, who finished 10th. Having experienced the inevitable decline that arrives in your mid-30s, McKiernan fears that McCormack (33), may well have seen her best days at the event.
“She will race well again but she’s never going to be competitive in the European Cross Country again unless you get rid of the Africans,” said McKiernan. “You can’t expect her to be winning again at 33, 34. We all have our day and letting go is the problem.”
As for the trend of nation-hopping athletes running for Turkey – both senior titles were won by Kenyan natives on Sunday – the former European champion is unimpressed. “It’s pitiful,” said McKiernan, who concedes little can be done so the emphasis should be on raising standards to help Irish athletes compete. And if any such aspiring distance runners wanted to pick the brains of an Irish great, would McKiernan be willing to pass on her wisdom?
“Absolutely,” she said. “You just want to help.”
Catherina McKiernan was speaking at the launch of the KIA Race Series, a nationwide race series which will take place in 2018.