Schools athletics is a wonderful antidote to the cynicism which has captured athletics globally at the highest level, writes Paul Rouse
You hear them before you see them. And it’s something glorious: the high- pitched, joyous, unending scream of children at a sports day.
The sun is burning the sky and over in the stand, there are kids up on the seats, jumping and yelling; along the railings, others are straining out over the track, roaring support and clapping; and, a little further away, all around the lovely ampitheatre that is the Morton Stadium in Santry there are groups of primary schoolchildren, their teachers, and a speckle of parents.
An Under-10 sprint is coming down the home straight, and the girls are a microcosm of the modern ethnic composition of Dublin’s classrooms. They are wearing the colours of their schools and they fly down the track to the sound of ever-louder cheers. It is scene that is repeated in race after race from 10am until the early afternoon — a triumph of organisation that is a tribute to those who give their time to make this day happen.
As these races are run, above the bottom turn of the track, a small group of girls are rolling down a grassy bank and laughing their heads off — and then doing it over and over again. About 30 other girls are turning cartwheels, almost in unison. Two boys are wrestling each other beneath the flagpoles, and over a bit further, another boy seems to be trying to push a straw up his friend’s nose. This ends in another wrestling match.
Further along again, a gang of 20 or so boys are just hanging out, the hippest eight-year-olds ever to chill in this neighbourhood.
For all the talk about how different life now is for children and for all that there are things that are indeed profoundly different, there is also much that is essentially the same.
The fun of a sports day is something familiar to all, something that is a shared experience across generations, something recognisable from everybody’s past.
This is no ordinary sports day, however: it’s the Dublin Schools Athletics Finals.
And to be here is a magical experience.
There are hundreds of children here to run. And between races, they roam around Morton Stadium like the great herds of the Savannah, as if they have wandered in from one of David Attenborough’s nature films.
It is a wonderful antidote: there’s an awful lot to be cynical about in the modern world of athletics. The travesty that is the Olympic games will once again dishonour the meaning of athletics again this summer. The brilliance, commitment, and integrity of honest athletes will be tarnished by the drug cheats and dopers of all hues who mean that it is now impossible to entirely believe in anyone who wins.
That is an awful thing for those who are clean, but it is the inevitable legacy of the crooks who have gone before them and of the administrators who have singularly failed their sports.
In essence, to believe that athletics at the Olympics Game will be clean of drug winners is to believe that the earth is shaped like one big pancake.
And if the sport of athletics can be considered as a spectrum, the Olympics track and field championships lie debased at one end, and what is happening at Santry sits at the opposite extreme entirely.
As the hours roll on at Santry, the tannoy system calls boys and girls to race and calls out, also, the winners of those races.
It is a reminder, of course, that this is a day that is laced with disappointment for some. It is a hard thing to be the fastest child in your school, the fastest child on your street, even the fastest child you know. And then you meet somebody who is faster and they beat you in front of a crowd. And the bitter tears of defeat flow freely beside the track at Santry: nothing anyone says can change the fact of loss or change the cruelty of that feeling.
Time — and the pockmarks of the inevitable defeats still to come — will put the defeat of this day in context, for better or for worse.
But today is a hard day to lose, if you expect — and are expected — to win.
And then there are those that do win — children so naturally athletic, that the elegance of their movement is beyond grace. Or their raw power, even at this early age, is so overwhelming that it is undeniable. And when power and elegance run together, it is thrilling to watch, regardless of the age of the athlete.
It is an entirely natural thing to wonder if one of these runners will one day compete in a bigger stadium and on a bigger stage.
Did someone look at Sonia running at a school sports or across a park or down the road and see in her stride the making of a world champion and an Olympic medalist?
But just as it is natural to ask that question, it is only right to ask also whether you would wish that on them.
The sacrifices, the compromises, the sheer obsession that is needed to rise to the top can strip a life of balance and create hazards that are not always overcome.
It can be done, of course. Travelling the spectrum from schools’ sports to Olympic Games reveals much about character and resilience. It is also an opportunity to be true to yourself and your sport.
Last week, Ciara Mageean spoke at a function in Dublin in a way that was an absolute credit to herself and her family. She has overcome injury and other disappointments and will run in the 1500m in the Olympics at Rio. She was asked about her athletics career by the RTÉ presenter Darragh Maloney and when she answered, the whole room stopped to listen (no mean feat, given that this was a function which was not in its early stages and which saw many of the 300 students present celebrating the end of their exams — or maybe they were celebrating the middle of their exams!).
What was apparent most of all was the sincerity and confidence with which her words flowed. She is obviously an outstanding athletic talent — but she also has a personality to match it.
And at the core of this is a love of running.
This is a love that is evident all morning at Santry, where an 11-year old boy has just brought home the baton in first place in the 400m relay race. He is so ecstatic in the moment that he leaps in the air and screams in joy.
All around people are cheering and clapping, and his teammates mob him. It is easy to lose yourself in his moment — the thrill of winning, the thrill of running, the promise of a future that stretches out beyond a field in Santry into a blue sky.
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