‘Let’s get this done’: Paul McNamara's air of resigned positivity

The offices and the pitches and the gyms may be all but shuttered but sport persists.

‘Let’s get this done’: Paul McNamara's air of resigned positivity

The offices and the pitches and the gyms may be all but shuttered but sport persists.

Working remotely is nothing new for Paul McNamara and the rest of his high-performance team at Athletics Ireland (AI) who deal with a broad church of athletes — 300 of whom represented Ireland last year — as well as coaches, support staff, and many more besides. But nothing could have prepared them for, well, this.

Athletics was among the first sports to be knocked off track by the coronavirus outbreak, with the World Indoor Championships, due to take place in Nanjing in China just last week, scrubbed from the calendar at the end of January.

The weeks since have claimed the World Race Walking Cup, the European Throws Cup, the World Half-Marathon, and the first three Diamond League meets, among other smaller events, and even the Olympics look susceptible to the deteriorating situation.

All McNamara, and other administrators like him around the world, can do is take the latest communique regarding rescheduled events at face value and plan towards them but it’s a peculiar existence planning for something that may not happen.

“There is something of an existential crisis as to what exactly are we working towards,” he admits.

People who wear singlets tend to be a resilient bunch, living out spartan existences in far-flung places as members of small, committed groups and sometimes waiting until the 11th hour for invitations to meets.

There were Irish athletes in the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, Australia, and Spain this past week, not to mention those here at home, but their resourcefulness has been challenged like never before by inaccessible facilities and support services.

Fence-jumping may well make a late bid for Olympic status.

“There’s an air of resigned positivity, if I can call it that,” said McNamara who has made a point of contacting as many athletes in recent days as possible.

‘Let’s get this done’. There’s nobody has packed it in and said, ‘right, I’m done’.

Still, none of this can be easy.

This is the time of year when athletes normally repair to warm-weather camps. It’s a lot to get your head around so AI have been talking to the psychology department in the Sport Ireland Institute about some sort of curriculum on dealing with the uncertainty.

The dilemmas facing just the distance athletes sum all this up.

The marathoners and race walkers had already hurdled some new obstacles before all this with the new and complex qualification criteria introduced last year for the Olympics and the fact their events were then moved belatedly from Tokyo to Sapporo due to concerns over searing temperatures.

Many, like Alex Wright, would have had big races planned in the coming weeks. A 50k walk in his case.

That’s a lot of prep done already for an exam that won’t be sat and with no prospect of an alternative assignment for the foreseeable future.

“All the big city marathons have been knocked on the head,” says McNamara. “We have a number of athletes now who are eligible for selection but we have several more who feel they have a realistic shot at it, which they do.

So if you are targeting the Hamburg Marathon on the 19th of April and you know it’s gone, what do you do?

“The ring-around we’re doing with athletes at the moment is to find out if there is a back-up plan. In the early days of this thing we felt we would be inundated with requests from athletes to put on alternative competitions domestically but that isn’t an option now. It is a challenge.

“None of us have a crystal ball as to how long this will last.”

The headaches this must be causing up the pyramid, from athletes and coaches through to NGBs, international federations, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself, are many and varied, not least given only 57% of the spaces open for Tokyo have been filled across the sporting spectrum.

The IOC has already signposted the likelihood that “practical adaptations” will be needed to previously watertight qualifying criteria. Tweaks will be required on a sport-by-sport basis because of the vast array of differences in the rules and regulations used.

Any revisions are due to be published by the start of April and, while the IOC has spoken about the need for “solidarity” in all this, it’s not hard to see some calling foul if the goalposts are moved at this late stage, even if it is because of such a global crisis.

“It’s unprecedented,” says McNamara of the situation.

“Every single day there are things dawning on us. A big part of my remit is selection policy and making it clear.

“We publish policy for given events but those events are now going to shift in the calendar.

Policy has to shift as well to match that but we had selections made for some events, like the World Half-Marathon for instance.

“If we re-select for an event at a later date are we then open to challenge for that? That’s the stuff that nobody has had to come across before.”

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