Grace of Sonia brings back some golden memories

AS about 1,400 of Europe’s finest athletes explode into action this morning in Barcelona’s big European Championships, the image in my mind’s eye is not of any of the 30-strong Irish team involved.

The image is of the gracefully magnificent Sonia O’Sullivan, from Cobh, flowing down the tracks with all the grace of a Kenyan and all the gritty determination of a German.

I’m sorry if this diminishes the stature of the men and women bearing the green vest in Barcelona this week but it is a fact for me. There is some justification for it too. We have won a grand total of 10 medals in these championships since 1934 and that is a hard fact too. There have been three golden ones, five silver and two bronze.

The mighty O’Sullivan did not just win exactly half of them in her career. She also won all the gold medals over distances ranging from 1500m through 5,000m up to 10,000m. Even the great Eamon Coghlan could not do better than a silver over 1,500 metres back in 1978. It is little wonder that when the athletics season blossoms that so many of us so powerfully and clearly recall golden Sonia.

We have a team of 30 in Barcelona and their manager Patsy McGonagle said the other day: “We are delighted with the initial team selection for Barcelona. We targeted improvements from Gothenberg two years ago and this now seems to be coming to fruition. The strength of athletics in Ireland was clearly evident at this year’s European Team Championships where we dominated on the track and maintained our Division 1 status.”

So far so good. But it is all about medals, is it not? Strong odds are that our team will not win a single gold in Barcelona. The team will be lucky to add a single silver and maybe a bronze to that paltry 10 won since 1934, half of them by one woman. The cruel fact is that in the league of athletic nations we are 28th in the European table. Does it matter in the end? It probably does much more than is realised in terms of our self-esteem as a nation.

We have live hopes in the team beginning their campaigns today. Such athletes as David Gillick (400m), Derval O’Rourke (100m hurdles) and Paul Hession (100m & 200m) have strong European rankings in their disciplines and will be seen as strong medal contenders if things go well for them.

Walker Olive Loughnane is a world silver medallist and is competing with optimism. But she has been troubled by injury this season and was unable to take part in the national championships. Her counterpart Robert Heffernan is ranked in the European top 10 too and cannot be written out of the picture. The talented Joanne Cuddihy did not make it because of injury but Alistair Cragg is there and could do well in the 5,000m even against the formidable home contingent led by Jesus Espana.

Others to follow include long jumper Kelly Proper and the emerging sprinter Niamh Whelan.

It is unfair that race walkers, however highly-rated, do not catch the public interest in the way that runners do. It is unfair that these highly-skilled athletes engaged in the most demanding of disciplines do not get the appreciation they deserve. The same, to a lesser extent, is true in relation to hurdlers like Derval O’Rourke. It is good that Cragg is involved in one of the distance races that have always been so popular in the island of Delaney and Coghlan and Treacy and such a loss that we do not now have an emerging miler of that stature to capture the nation’s heart.

What is special though about our team in Barcelona is the inclusion of the ambitious and talented sprinter Jason Smyth from Derry. The 23-year-old man is in a class of his own. He is a visually-impaired Paralympian sprinter who won two gold medals for Ireland in the Paralympics two years ago.

His central vision is impaired by a rare condition known as Stargardt’s disease but this has not stopped the Derry athlete from smashing the 100m and 200m records at the Paralympics. In Barcelona he will compete in the 100m and surely there is a young man to cheer for.

Given his double golds two years ago there were some who compared his achievements to those of Usain Bolt!

That was praise indeed. May he fare well.

Boxing apart when one looks at the elements which feature largely in the Irish sporting tradition, away back to the early Olympics, there are the track victories and the power disciplines, especially the hammer.

Shades of heroes like O’Callaghan! It is a huge sporting tragedy that another lady, hammer champion Eileen O’Keefe, has been prevented by injury from participation in the Barcelona sun. Eileen O’Keefe, given her record, would have been a real medal contender. She would have been as good a prospect as any to add to that tally of just 10 medals after all the blood sweat and tears of Barcelona.

Good luck to them all.

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