DERVAL O'ROURKE: Irish athletics could learn a lot from FAI and Keane

The announcement of Roy Keane as assistant manager to Martin O’Neill got me very excited.

Keane is one of my heroes and someone I got the opportunity to interview for a radio show a few years ago. The experience was both terrifying and exhilarating and I think the effect Keane will have on the Irish soccer team will be very interesting.

In his first press conference he was asked what he will bring to the Irish set-up and he offered experience, knowledge and high standards. What elite sport can afford not to have these three ingredients if they are to succeed? The situation in Irish soccer left me wondering if there is something Athletics Ireland (AI) can learn from this? Rugby already takes advantage of its high achievers once they retire — just look at Anthony Foley with Munster and Ronan O’Gara’s new career with Racing Metro.

There is often friction between AI and Irish athletes. But these tensions are bound to arise when the margins for success are so small. Part of the vision of Athletics Ireland is to “ensure that everyone with athletic talent reaches their full potential”, but that message seems to get lost in translation. Most athletes say their goal is to fulfil their potential. If the association wants success, and the athletes want success, then why do their priorities often seem so diverse? Most of the top athletes set up their own individual performance environment. Rather than seeing this as a snub of the association, I believe the experience gathered from this should be harnessed and used to improve the system for younger athletes.

What the FAI and O’Neill have done in bringing Keane on board will most certainly bring back fans and, hopefully, it will excite the players. Is there a way Athletics Ireland can use its most influential athletes to do the same? As it stands there is no pathway for Ireland’s most successful athletes to be involved in the sport once their competitive career finishes. A quick look at the different committees in Athletics Ireland illustrates how only a few former international athletes are involved after their track careers finish. There is no sign of any Irish medallists in recent years on any committee.

I was at a crossroads in my athletics career in 2004, and I turned to many people for advice. I wanted to know how I went from being a lane-filler to someone who had the potential to win medals. I emailed Sonia O’Sullivan with some questions. She responded with advice that continues to help me to this day. It was this practical advice from years of experience at the top of her sport that I needed. Sonia had consistently achieved at a high level throughout her career and her advice was invaluable.

Before I was World indoor champion, I talked to David Gillick about his experience winning the European indoor championships. I was completely in awe of his achievement and knew he had done it training in Ireland. When I went on to win a world indoor title, I regularly turned to him for advice. After a tough season this year, I regularly talk to newly-crowned world champion Robert Heffernan about the mental side of the sport. The extreme highs and lows a top athlete goes through is something both of us can relate to and sharing those experiences is always helpful. That sort of advice cannot be gleaned from a book, it comes only from experience. Paul Hession has been one of Ireland’s most successful sprinters. He was inches away from making the 200m final in the Beijing Olympic games and as painfully close to making a World Championships sprint final the following year in Berlin. For a guy from Galway who showed no major promise as a junior athlete to propel himself into the top ten in the world in an event dominated by non-Europeans is a huge achievement. Hession did this through hard work and a meticulous approach to his sport. His knowledge of every aspect of his training and competing was phenomenal. If I ever had queries about blood test results or fast tracks for sprinters or post-training recovery, he was the man to talk to. When Paul crossed the finish line at the London Olympics, it signalled the end of his illustrious career but it also was the end of his involvement in the sport. As Paul left the sport to pursue his medical career, so too did all the knowledge he had built up during his career.

In my opinion, there should be a place for athletes’ formal involvement in the sport. Athletics Ireland needs to identify potential contributors and open a dialogue with them. All athletes are different — there is no one-fits-all approach to track and field — and it would be hugely beneficial to hear from a host of athletes with past success. Any Irish track athlete that wins a championship medal does this by having extremely high standards.

Nobody wants to hear athletes complaining, it’s easy to find fault but what is not easy is finding solutions. Athletes who find a way to claim championship medals are most definitely solution-driven. It is about giving a voice to those who have shown massive amounts of dedication, passion, skill and desire to reach high levels in their chosen event.

In 2014, the big target for the Irish team is the European Championships in Zurich. Make no mistake, nobody is going there to watch the performance of the CEO or the High Performance manager.

People want to see results on the track, they want to see Irish vests in finals and winning medals.

It comes two years before the Olympics and those wanting to succeed in Rio must use it as a stepping stone.

If the FAI can find a way to use Roy Keane, then surely it should be only a matter of time before Athletics Ireland finds a way to pull its top athletes together and use their knowledge of years of experience they spent doing battle on the track.

Letting athletes walk away and losing that wealth of information is a big loss for Irish athletics.


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