Irish athletics on the right track after satisfactory European Championships

Medals have a habit of distracting attention, bright and shiny as they are, so to get a feel for the current state of Irish athletics after the European Championships in Berlin you have to step back from Thomas Barr’s brilliant bronze and look at the week as a whole.

Irish athletics on the right track after satisfactory European Championships

By Cathal Dennehy

Medals have a habit of distracting attention, bright and shiny as they are, so to get a feel for the current state of Irish athletics after the European Championships in Berlin you have to step back from Thomas Barr’s brilliant bronze and look at the week as a whole.

Once again, the Irish were highly respectable when stepping out into the Olympiastadion, sending three medal contenders — Thomas Barr, Ciara Mageean and Leon Reid — into European finals to mix it with the best.

Barr, of course, was his brilliant self, and the 26-year-old has developed a rare and precious ability only witnessed in Derval O’Rourke in recent times — the knack to not just be the best version of yourself at major championships, but even better.

His bronze medal in Thursday’s 400m hurdles in 48.31 — defeated only by a world champion and Olympic bronze medallist — positions him as a genuine medal contender ahead of next year’s World Championships in Doha, and by default the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Mageean was magnificent in Sunday night’s 1500m final, a word rarely used to describe an athlete who comes home without a medal.

But to have clawed her way back into the medal scrap after a string of poor championships and to race without so much as the tiniest tactical blip is a triumph that should rank up there with her European bronze in 2016.

It won’t, of course, but it should.

In Leon Reid, Irish athletics has a sprinter genuinely capable of winning European and perhaps even global medals over 200m, although given he now runs for a country that shouts the loudest about nation-hopping athletes, the jury is still out on whether he will be fully embraced.

The son of a Belfast woman, later adopted by a Wexford woman, his identity may be English but few looked prouder to pull on the green vest last week.

Of course it wasn’t all good, and there were almost inevitable ructions over relay selections. With our best athletes delivering, it was also easy to overlook the string of those behind who faltered on the big stage — athletes incapable of producing a performance even close to what they had in the weeks before.

No-one wants to deny a place to someone who earned it — especially not to athletes who invest so much of themselves and get so little in return — but in future Athletics Ireland will have to be more harshly judgmental when selecting its team.

Those who have posted qualifying standards way back when, yet are either injured or out of shape come championships time, should be left behind. The era of the championship tourist is no more.

But there were lots to feel good about here. Internationally, the sport showed it still matters, drawing just shy of half a million fans through the gates of the cavernous Olympiastadion over the seven days.

Phil Healy capped the season of her life with two semi-finals in the 100m and 200m then teamed up with sister Joan and juniors Ciara Neville and Gina Akpe-Moses to run faster than any Irish 4x100m team in history, missing out on the final by a sliver.

The average age of that team is 21, so they have every right to now dream of lining out at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, and with their ability and ambition, they won’t be happy just to be there.

On the roads the marathoners produced a typically tough showing, the men finishing sixth as a team, while the race walkers were also impressive, highlighted by Alex Wright’s 10th-place finish.

The question now is who will rise up the ranks to replace them, because the average age of our best endurance folk suggests there’s very few.

But overall, it’s clear Irish athletics is moving in the right direction. The question now is what is the end goal, and how long will it take to get there?

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