DERVAL O'ROURKE: As villains go, drug cheats are far worse than steeplechase strippers

It has been a manic past 10 days in the world of sport.

Ireland’s women’s rugby team finished their memorable World Cup campaign with a good performance against France, finishing fourth overall. They should be proud of their efforts but the European Athletics Championships in Zurich dominated my sports viewing for the week.

Having recently retired, I knew this championship would be a tough one to watch but honestly, I enjoyed it, except for the women’s hurdles. It’s a little too soon for me to enjoy when not competing. The little voice in my head was telling me I still belonged out there. Saying that, it was good to see a championship from a fresh perspective.

The sport usually struggles to garner much media attention but that changed momentarily when Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad ran the last 100m of his 3,000m steeplechase with his top off and in his mouth. At that point in the race, he was so far ahead he could not be caught and chose to celebrate in an outrageously over-the-top manner. This is a guy who has two European wins, two Olympic silvers and two world bronze medals to his name. He has also managed to amass quite a history of bad behaviour ranging from pushing mascots, to a full-blown punch-up with a fellow French athlete. He doesn’t make it easy to like him.

Mekhissi-Benabbad was certainly guilty of acting like an arrogant idiot but I don’t think he deserved to be disqualified and lose his gold medal. The penalty was too harsh. Surely a public warning and perhaps a ban from racing the rest of the season would have been sufficient? He was clearly the best guy in the race and the new result can hardly be considered to reflect the best athletes. How can the Spanish athlete Angel Mullera take pleasure in his bronze medal, after winning it in such a manner? Realistically he was fourth best on the day.

Mekhissi-Benabbad also lined up in the men’s 1500m final a few days later and in a race that can only be described as chaotic, he came away the victor. Some in the crowd greeted his win with boos and some commentators felt highly indignant by him celebrating the win with his arms out before the line. I’ve been at many athletics meets where drug cheats are running and I’ve never heard them receive such condemnation. As villains go, drug cheats are far worse than steeplechase strippers.

As much as some people wanted to vilify Mekhissi- Benabbad, his antics garnered huge media attention in a sport that can often be a little dull to the general public. How many people were up in arms when Usain Bolt showboated the last 20m of his Olympic gold medal performance in Beijing? Not too many.

I was really interested to see the Irish team performance this week. At European Championships, I believe that we should aim high. This is the level where we can be truly competitive. To have a chance on the global stage, whether Olympics or World Championships, we need to be competitive in Europe. Thanks to Mark English, the team produced a bronze medal in the 800 metres. He ran a superb race and was able to perform on the most important day of the season. English showed an acute awareness of the need to be in the right position to strike from home and get on the podium. He will make Irish athletics incredibly exciting for the next few years.

Two other big performances came from Ciaran O’Lionaird and Paul Robinson to make the 1,500m final. Both had a tough race for different reasons. O’Lionaird was clipped from behind which resulted in him being unable to finish and Robinson just missed a medal in fourth. A tough day but neither of them have any reason to believe they don’t belong in the upper echelons of European distance running.

As a small country, with a small talent pool, Irish athletics needs to be strategic in its efforts for success. Relays are an event in which we can have good solid results. This was shown at the European Championships where the men’s 4 x 400m team came fifth and smashed the Irish record. There was no individual Irish 400m finalist but as a team, they had enough depth to make a final and finish fifth. With the right approach, an Irish men’s team could reach the Olympic final in 2016.

The women’s 4 x 100m team ran an Irish record but just missed the final by fractions. The 100m individual qualifying standard for the World Championships and Olympic Games is faster than any Irish woman has ever run. The event has massive depth worldwide and I’ve often felt our best chance of being competitive on the world stage in pure sprinting is to focus on sprint relays. There is a technical element to the changeovers, which means a squad can become quite competitive by focusing on the event. The next two years will show whether this becomes the case. One worrying element was the lack of Irish entries in the field events. In recent years we have had Deirdre Ryan and Eileen O’Keefe competitive on the world stage but now there is no one even entered in Europeans.

Overall, the performance of the Irish team was solid, in and around where the team has performed in most European Championships. However, for the team to succeed on the world stage, the performances need to improve. All the athletes are well aware of this.

There has been a lot of mention about the age profile of this team, it is slightly younger than teams in previous championships. While that point has some merit, I don’t believe Irish athletics should base their structure around an age policy. There were medallists of all ages at this championship, from teens to the inspirational Jo Pavey in the 10,000m who turns 41 next month. Age is just a number in athletics, it isn’t a defining factor for success.

That’s the European Championships over for another two years. The talent is undoubtedly there for this team to get even stronger.



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