GloHealth All-Ireland Schools Track and Field Championships
In athletics, there are certain things known to be true.
Your faith in the sport – whatever is left of it – will be routinely tested, whether through corruption scandals or the latest revelation that yet another champion is nothing but a walking, talking pharmacy.
Another banker, rest assured, is that there will be controversy surrounding the Irish Olympic selection, and when our athletes finally go there – and return home without medals – they will be viewed as failures.
But another certainty is this: just when you start to think this may be a waste of time, a false, frivolous pursuit of a noble ideal, the first weekend of June comes along and tells you otherwise.
One event, in particular, offers an antidote for the poisonous doping scandals, a reminder that rumours of athletics’ demise can sometimes be greatly exaggerated.
From 9am today, they’ll arrive in Tullamore from all over the country, the finest teenage talent in our ranks, for the GloHealth All-Ireland Schools Track and Field Championships.
By the time the crowds filter out shortly after 6pm, 120 events will have been contested, a far cry from the scant programme which marked its inception back in September 1916, when just 13 events were held, all for boys.
These days, of course, things have changed, changed utterly, and both genders enjoy equal billing on today’s schedule.
Indeed, it is the female triumvirate of Elizabeth Morland, Sharlene Mawdsley and Ciara Neville who will take top billing, though on the boys’ side, the jumping feats of Keith Marks and Ryan Carthy Walsh are sure to draw some gasps.
For some, it will mark the climax of their season, the event being the pinnacle of the underage athletics calendar. For others, it will prove a springboard to international championships later this summer.
For all, though, the memories will remain long after the gates of Tullamore Harriers have closed later this evening.
Take it from someone who knows, like Sonia O’Sullivan, whose outrageous talent first announced itself on this stage. O’Sullivan won gold medals in 1985, 1986 and 1987, and despite all that came after, the memory of that final race, the senior girls’ 800m, has stayed with her.
“I can clearly remember it,” she says. “It was a really wet day and not conducive to running fast. I led from start to finish and won in 2:14, which was nothing special, but I didn’t think it mattered.”
She’s right, for times play little more than an incidental role in this championship setting. Yet the event was always about far more than medals for O’Sullivan; in a sport sometimes swamped with isolation, it was a chance to be part of a community.
“I used to travel up with all the other girls from Cork, and we always had so much fun,” she recalls. “There was never any time to be nervous or worried about racing and it was all a big adventure.”
And what advice would she offer the class of 2016, those who have today in their grasp, tomorrow in their reach?
“I’d say to appreciate this time and enjoy the day. It’s great to win and be successful, but it’s more important to look back with happy memories at a time of your life that was one of the best, when you had the opportunity to do something that only a small percentage of people get to do.”
Of course, just making it to Tullamore makes today’s crop part of that small, accomplished percentage. For proof of that, look no further than Michelle Finn, who launched the event earlier this week.
The Cork athlete is currently qualified for the Olympics in the 3000m steeplechase, but her mediocrity as a teenage athlete offers hope to also-rans.
“I don’t think I ever got to compete at the Irish Schools in Tullamore,” said Finn.
“I always associate schools with sunny days at the track, and I met lots of the friends I have today at schools competitions. Many of them still think of it as the best day of athletics in Ireland every year.”
They’re not wrong, and for proof of that, get yourself to Tullamore this afternoon. For those who can’t, it’s also being streamed on YouTube, proof yet again of just how far it’s come since 1916.
Many things have changed with the event over the past 100 years, but at its heart it’s still the same — a platform for future stars to showcase their talent.
With today set to be another scorcher, and the latest cast of young stars all set to shine bright, the dark, depressing side of the sport should once again feel like a distant memory.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved