Derval O'Rourke: I feel exhausted by stories of cheating and corruption. It’s worn me down

Amy Foster of Ireland (left) competes in the women's 60m at AIT International Athletics Grand Prix. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

THE next seven weeks is an incredibly important time in the life of any Irish athlete that has aspirations of toeing the line at the Olympic Games, writes Derval O’Rourke

This weekend Irish athletes take to the track at the National Championships at the Morton Stadium, Two weeks later will see an Irish team compete at the European Championships and athletics will reach its peak in Rio from August 9. The races will go on despite scandals swirling around the sport. It’s hard not to wonder does athletics really matter anymore?

Four years ago I raced at the London Games, my third Olympics. It mattered an incredible amount to me to be on the track and trying to race as fast as I could in an Irish singlet. This summer I will be in a totally different position. I’ll be working for all the events doing analysis.

As a retired athlete, I see the sport differently now. I see the bad in it more easily. When a new story breaks about doping I feel myself sigh and think “here we go again, no surprise there”. I feel exhausted by the stories of cheating and corruption. It has worn me down. I don’t have the protection of the athlete bubble anymore. The bubble is a magical place that many athletes exist in. I lived in the bubble for a long time. It’s a place where the only thing that really matters is competing well and justifying the long, hard, relentless slog of being an athlete. Without the bubble, it’s almost impossible to get up in the mornings and face into the task of chasing your childhood dreams, that’s what the Olympics represented for me.

I was excellent at living my life in the bubble as an athlete. But since my retirement I don’t have the protection of the athlete bubble. A news story broke this week about prominent distance coach Jama Aden. He is best known for coaching world record holder and the current poster girl of world athletics Genzebe Dibaba. Aden was arrested in Spain and his hotel room raided. The raid was a joint effort between the Spanish doping authorities and the IAAF in what has been reported as an ongoing doping investigation since 2013. There are reports circulating doping materials were found.

The consequences of this story could be huge for athletics. Aden has connections with very prominent and successful athletes. Obviously a full investigation needs to be carried out but this story could be massive for athletics in the weeks to come. The weeks leading into the Rio Olympics.

Most of the athletics stories that will be read in the coming weeks will be about scandals. That is the current climate. The sport is going through a turbulent time. All these stories should be public and for athletics to even attempt to clean its house, it needs to be this way. The stories will be about dirty athletes, tainted coaches and corrupt officials. It’s easy to wonder why the sport matters and to question all athletes. But I think that’s doing the sport a disservice.

This weekend there will be Irish athletes hoping to punch their tickets to the Rio Olympics because they still believe in the sport and their place in it. I’ll be watching the action and putting to one side the stories dominating the sport. These athletes live in the bubble and concentrate on their own endeavours. They control what they can, which is their performance. It’s a big weekend for two of Team Ireland’s main athletics hopes for Rio. Thomas Barr and Mark English will line up in the 400 metre hurdles and the 800 metres respectively. Neither athlete has raced yet this season due to injuries. Hopefully the entry numbers will allow heats to give them a chance for two races during the weekend. At this point in an Olympic season every chance to race is an opportunity to gain some vital race fitness. The weekend will be telling for both athletes.

Cork athlete Phil Healy brought attention to athletics this year for all the right reasons. She became a YouTube sensation after a video showing her running an amazing leg of a universities relay race went viral. It was seen by more than three million people! Since then Phil has dipped her toes in the water of the 400m, up to this point she has been a very successful 100 and 200m runner.

It will be fascinating to see if Phil can win the national title in the 400m. She will have a hard task on her hands with in-form Sinead Denny the favourite. But if Phil’s relay race earlier this season is anything to go on she should not be discounted.

Clean and hard working athletes deserve a chance to pursue their dreams. They may be doing it whilst living in their own bubble but that is their choice. I don’t think any clean athlete is naïve enough to believe they are competing on a level playing field but they do live in hope that it is getting a little better. There is hope that for every scandal, we inch a little closer to a cleaner sport. It’s too easy to only see the bad. I need to remember the good parts and I’ll start this weekend whilst watching the national championships. I really feel that athletics still matters and I hope this weekend’s action will restore a little faith in it.


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