KIERAN SHANNON: Athletes must come first for a golden future

She probably won’t go on to win a medal like Katie did, she may not even achieve her primary goal of running a national record and personal best, but yesterday Derval O’Rourke proved again what a champion she is.

There were so many barriers she had to overcome other than the 10 in her path. Her indifferent form all season, the baggage from the disappointments of Athens and Beijing, the shadow of her boyfriend Peter O’Leary’s betting controversy, and then, Kevin Ankrom. A man whose job it is to assist athletes like O’Rourke instead decided to impede it by questioning O’Rourke’s preparation schedule on the eve of her biggest race in four years.

It was an unnecessary distraction that could have proved the athlete’s breaking point and a lesser athlete would have literally or figuratively tripped up yesterday. But while we should be grateful the Douglas woman had the grit to clear it, the question remains: why did she have to contend with the hurdle placed in her track by her sport’s performance director? According to Ankrom, O’Rourke should have been in training holding camp with the majority of the Irish team in recent weeks, instead of just breezing into the Olympic village on Saturday, only 48 hours out from her first race.

“It makes me nervous,” he told reporters. “I may not have a lot of interaction with the athletes, but I want to see where they’re at, where they are going.” He had yet to speak to O’Rourke about just how much the betting controversy had affected her preparations, but felt it was something he could have dealt with if she had attended holding camp.

O’Rourke though, was never going to attend holding camp, not after Beijing, for reasons she outlined extensively in an interview with this column back in the spring and reasons which Ankrom should have known and respected.

“I know from experience that it doesn’t suit me to be there [in the Olympic village] very long before my race,” she told us over afternoon tea in a south Dublin hotel. “[Instead] I’ll be at home, cooking my own meals, going to Santry, training with my group and my friends. For Beijing we were out on our holding camp for three weeks. I hate holding camps. I never train with everyone else on the Irish team the rest of the year, it’s an individual sport, so why would I want to spend three weeks knowing if the walkers are injured or what mileage the distance runners have clocked up? Everyone takes themselves very seriously in a holding camp. I don’t need that intensity or to be looking around at who’s eating what or thinking, ‘God, that person just had some chocolate. Who’s going to choke? Who’s not going to choke?’”

There was something else that emerged from our chat that day. She and her sport’s performance director had only spoken once — briefly — since her disappointing showing at the World Championships in Daegu six months earlier. Communication clearly hasn’t improved since; the necessary rapport has not been established.

In Ankrom’s eyes it should have been Derval’s job to facilitate him by being in holding camp, not his to facilitate her, and so by inconveniencing him, he was entitled to inconvenience her preparations by going public on his disapproval of her schedule.

O’Rourke is not the only prominent athlete who has been privately disappointed by the lack of communication emanating from Ankrom. But this has been a recurring issue in Irish athletics, long before Ankrom was headhunted from New Zealand 18 months ago.

As Sonia and the whole gear controversy in ’96 underlined, the culture of Irish athletics administrators has been less about the athletes than those who govern it.

It is no coincidence that Ireland’s best performers at these Olympics are once again the boxers. For their high performance director Billy Walsh, just like Gary Keegan before him, the athlete is at the centre of everything. Athletes aren’t pawns, they have feelings, they have setbacks, they have ideas.

A couple of weeks after the Irish boxers returned with three medals from Beijing, I attended a conference hosted by Coaching Ireland at which the boxer’s sport psychologist Gerry Hussey delivered an excellent lecture, the theme of which was: ‘Cultivating decision-makers: From obedience to responsibility.’ The watershed for the boxers, he explained, was when Walsh and Keegan and their support staff stopped making every decision for the boxers and let the boxers make more decisions for themselves. Instead of all warming up the same, each boxer came up with their own warm-up, their individuality and intelligence respected.

According to Coaching Ireland’s leading education officer Liam Moggan, the definition of a great coach is one “who helps athletes become independent so that they are able to identify options and find solutions for the changing demands of their sport.”

Luckily for O’Rourke she has such coaches in her friends Sean and Terrie Cahill. Ankrom should similarly respect her independence.


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