Rob Heffernan has called for international athletes to be given access to train on athletics tracks across the country, arguing it is a “no-brainer” in terms of safety.
While some tracks such as Morton Stadium in Santry have re-opened for public use - with no more than 20 people in the facility at any one time, no more than four in any area and advance booking now mandatory - the majority remain closed, which has left many athletes struggling to train.
The situation is particularly tough for those who train on tracks run by universities, most of which have yet to announce plans for re-opening. Heffernan believes Ireland’s top athletes should not have to wait until they open for public use.
“It’d be a massive boost for international athletes,” he says.
When you look at the number of people who are in supermarkets and hardware stores, it’s so easy, a no-brainer. You could have four or five athletes on the track and keep physical distancing.
The world champion race walker called on the governing bodies to create a system that allows access for international athletes.
“With (Sport Ireland CEO) John Treacy being a former athlete, he should know the importance, that athletes need to be on the track to see their form. We’re a small country, we don’t have that many (elite athletes). It’s not going to be a logistical nightmare, so someone should go out on a limb and get the pass for them.”
In Limerick, the UL track has been closed for the past two months and while Munster Rugby players have been seen training on the in-field, it remains closed to all athletes, including those preparing for the Olympics.
In Waterford the track at the Regional Sports Centre remains closed and Waterford IT has yet to announce plans to re-open. In Cork both the CIT track in Bishopstown and the Mardyke track – which is owned by UCC - are also closed.
Ian O’Sullivan, a staff member at CIT who is a volunteer coach for their athletics team, is hoping to see that change. He has written to the authorities at CIT to highlight the model used at Morton Stadium and contact has also been made with the college by Hamish Adams, CEO of Athletics Ireland.
“If we don’t make noise about it and it’s not a priority, it might not happen for two or three months,” says O’Sullivan.
Heffernan can understand why colleges have been slow to re-open facilities.
“Economically, they’re not going to add any advantage and when it comes back to money it’s a lot of work for minimal return. There are policies and red tape, but (what’s needed is) somebody to have common sense.”
In Italy, international athletes were allowed to use tracks during the early stages of their lockdown to continue Olympic preparations and Heffernan believes a similar differentiation could be made here.
“I’m a normal punter, I run 50 to 60 miles a week for my head, and I don’t need a track at all. But for guys putting their lives and careers on hold to represent Ireland, the margins (are small) and a second a lap is huge.
It’s not like you’re training for GAA or soccer, you need to know specifically where you’re at. When you see other games and sports opening up with social distancing, I think athletics is the easiest one of them all. Get a half dozen athletes on the track and keep them in separate areas.
Heffernan retired from athletics in 2018 and is coach to international race walkers Brendan Boyce and David Kenny, among others.
They typically train on a track three times a week and he feels they would gain a lot by being allowed access again, though he is most concerned about Ireland’s top-level sprinters.
"They have to get into spikes and for the conditioning of their calves, it’s a different motion than with runners on; it’s going to lead to guys getting injured.
"This is a huge opportunity to work on athletes’ technique and get them ready for the Olympics next year. If they had the luxury of getting to the track, that’d do so much for their motivation and develop them.”