Dr Ed Coughlan: Cork's culture of belief is the drug of choice for the truly world class

There’s a reason Cork is the country’s winningest sporting county. Superior genes? Unlikely. Superior belief?

Rio 2016 is fast becoming the Paul and Gary O’Donovan Olympic Games.

The international media are falling under their engaging spell, keen to get an interview with the most entertaining athletes to hit the sporting world in recent times.

Yet to those in the know there was an inevitability about their silver medal in the men’s lightweight double sculls. Behind the hours of application to their training and craft is a culture of achievement that they no doubt feed off on some level.

Allow me to expand.

Earlier this year, I was invited by the Physiological Society and the Royal Society of Biology to contest a debate titled, Olympians: Born or Built? My opponent at the Edinburgh Science Festival event was the world-renowned sports geneticist Prof. Yannis Pitsiladis, a vocal advocate for years on the nature aspect of athletic development. Which left me, comfortably, on the nurture side of the argument.

Apart from my own research, that clearly favours the path of hard work and application under the guise of deliberate practice and continual development through self-regulated learning; my preparation revolved around collating the seemingly endless evidence to support the impact of the environment on the development of an Olympian.

Regardless of how sports commentators want to belittle the achievements of superstar athletes by labelling them ‘naturals’ and ‘freaks’, suggesting all they have to do is turn up to win. These so called ‘gifted’ athletes are the first to deny any such advantage.

Preferring to list the years of training, outstanding coaching and incalculable family support as the formula behind their success.

To list Michael Phelps as an example to embrace the nature stance is like saying ‘I know a man who smoked 60-a-day and lived to 100’ as a reason to take up the cigarettes.

However, you cannot discuss whether Olympians are born or built without first looking into the phenomenon of East and West African origin athletes dominating distance and sprint events respectively over the last 20 years. For years the world has been told that the mountainous Rift Valley region in Kenya, that lies on the Equator is the perfect place to be born if you want to be a world-class distance runner. Yet the research conducted in this training mecca by Pitsiladis himself, among other nature advocates, failed to reveal any genetic advantage.

Instead, they realised the immutable effect the environment has on an athlete’s development. Moreover, other observers cite how the power of a culture of expectancy can have an immeasurable impact on a successful athlete’s career. Akin to that of a New Zealand kid growing up believing that rugby world domination is a birth right.

These findings sent me in search of other such anomalies that suggest that belief and the will to prove a point are more potent weapons to have in your arsenal than the perfect DNA.

My bountiful search landed me in Yorkshire, a county in England that in the London 2012 Olympics would have finished 12th on the medal table ahead of nations such as Canada, Spain and Brazil. Yorkshire’s conveyor belt of superstars across sport has long since been a badge of honour for their successful county men and women, with athletes such as the 2012 Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee choosing to fly the Yorkshire flag over the Union Jack following his gold medal win. Incidentally, the week after the debate, Danny Willett became the first European in 17 years to win the Masters at Augusta before returning home to Yorkshire with the green jacket. It begs the question what causes such athletic hot spots. How do such goldmines of sporting achievement arise? Genetics is an all-too-simplistic and inaccurate answer.

Incredibly, the wonder of Yorkshire was trumped by a place that merited a slide all of its own in my debate presentation titled Athletics Nirvana.

There exists a place where the highest altitude peaks out at a measly 706m, well short of many of the world’s tallest buildings. It is over 3,500 miles north of the ‘ideal’ Equator. Where the annual weather sees 100 days of fog, 4 ft of rain, 11 knots of wind and only an average of 3.8 hours of daily sunlight. Yet it boasts a plethora of World champions across sprint, middle and long distance athletics.

Welcome to Cork, Ireland. Home of Derval O’Rourke, 2006 60m hurdles World champion. Marcus O’Sullivan, three-time 1,500m world champion. Olive Loughnane, 2009 20km walk world champion. Rob Heffernan, 2013 50km walk World champion. Sonia O’Sullivan, 1995 5,000m World champion.

And that’s just athletics. Roy Keane captained Manchester United through their most lucrative period in its history.

Denis Irwin is still named in every pundits Premier League greatest starting XI. Ronan O’Gara is Irish rugby’s highest points scorer.

Trainer Vincent O’Brien was voted as the greatest influence in horse racing history in a worldwide poll in 2003. Cork teams have topped the honours list in men’s and women’s Irish basketball since records began.

In addition, Cork is not only a dual county in its own national games, but a double-dual county, with a combined record in hurling, football, camogie and ladies football that far exceeds that of any other county.

Not to mention, Corkman Sean Twomey a 10-time paralympian across three different sports! Superior genes? Unlikely. Superior belief? Probably.

And so it came as no surprise when social media lit up last week with questions about how Cork has produced so many world-class athletes over the years following the O’Donovan brothers silver medal charge in Rio.

What struck most people was their disappointment at not winning the gold.

An insight into their inherent belief! Of course, Cork people are not genetically predisposed to sporting success. No more so than Yorkshire people or Kenyans or Jamaicans for that matter.

Obviously, athlete body types need to match their sport of choice, but only within reason.

True belief is an everyday trait that is unbending and all-powerful.

Coaches, counties and countries that drench their athletes and teams in the belief that their dreams are a window into their future success is as potent a performance enhancing drug as any chemist can muster in their lab.

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