Tipperary native Michael Hunt, 74, a schoolteacher in Rathmines, is the ‘Mr Chips’ of Irish schools’ athletics. President of the ISAA for the past 21 years, he is stepping down in December so today’s Irish Life Health All-Ireland Schools’ Track & Field Championships will be his last at the helm.
Q: The All-Ireland Schools T&F Championships, held annually on the first Saturday in June in Tullamore. The top 1000 teenagers in the country qualify to battle it out for prestigious individual titles and each finisher also wins points for the team trophies. How did you first get involved in schools athletics?
A: I became secretary of the West Leinster Schools shortly after I’d returned to Ireland in 1966 and it just went from there. I studied PE and Maths in Strawberry Hill (London) and actually had a teaching job secured in Zambia but came home. I spent 14 wonderful years in Ballyfermot VS (now Kylemore College) first and then moved to Rathmines Senior College in 1981 where I still enjoy teaching five hours maths a week to repeat Leaving Cert students.
Q: The ‘All-Ireland Schools’ finals have been called ‘Ireland’s little Olympics’. Why is it such a rite of passage for young athletes?
A: The athletes start in regional competitions, then qualify to provincials and then to All-Irelands. The process takes six to seven weeks and when they arrive in Tullamore the atmosphere is electric. A lot of them know each other so while the competition is extremely keen it’s also very friendly. I present the medals and on the podium you often hear the seniors say ‘unfortunately this is my last year in Irish schools.’
Q: What sort of numbers are you dealing with?
A: This year a total of 30,000 athletes from 670 schools started out in the regional competitions and approximately 1,000 from 350 schools have made it to the All-Irelands.
Q: Wow! Those numbers do make today sound more like a one-day Olympics!
A: It’s busy! We’ll run 122 events today: 70 track and 52 field. We always start at 9am with two hammer competitions (junior boys and girls), the senior girls’ high jump, the junior girls’ pole vault and the junior boys’ long jump. Competition goes right to 6:30. All the field events are finished by 5:15 by which time the 10 relay events begin, which always generate huge excitement.
Q: It sounds like a logistical nightmare?
A: With a lot of forward planning and help. Planning actually starts on the following Tuesday with a review of the timetable which is tweaked on almost an annual basis. Next Tuesday we’ll also book the venue for 2018 and write to the schools who have won all of the 31 trophies to congratulate them - this also helps keep tabs on the trophies!
Q: Has anyone ever forgotten to bring one back or lost one?
A: They’d be afraid to! A letter goes out a fortnight beforehand to remind trophy holders to have them back in Tullamore by 11am today. A Belfast school once forgot one. I rang them on the Monday - it’s not a Bank Holiday in the North - and the principal had it in Dublin by 12 noon that day.
Q: How will you keep so many plates in the air?
A: We rely on just shy of 150 officials - volunteers from schools all over Ireland and Athletics Ireland - plus a small army of helpers from local schools and Tullamore Harriers, our great hosts for the past 26 years. They’ll all be there at 7:45am this morning. Anthony White, the schools’ athletics administrator in Athletics Ireland, got 100 phone calls/emails last Monday, which gives some idea of the logistics, but all were positive, including offers to help.
Q: Has it ever gone completely pear-shaped?
A: No. We don’t always get it perfect but we try. We tweak the timetable annually and that’s easy when it’s fresh in your head and you know it as well as I do. For example, the junior and inter girls’ pole vault competitions over-ran by 10 minutes last year so we’ve adjusted for that now.
Q: There’s over 350 medals to distribute. How do you make sure you don’t mix them up?
A: They’re ordered and paid for before Christmas and I bring them home and put them in packages of 20 events each. We just work our way through them in sequence then.
Q: What if there’s a tie or dead heat? Do you have spares?
A: Yes and you often get ties in high jump or pole vault. The spares are not engraved so if there’s a tie I’ll give them a maths question while they’re on the podium and the one who answers first gets the engraved one. One of my favourites is ‘multiply two odd numbers to get 7?’ The answer is 7x1 and if they get it I say ‘you’re a genius!’ It just disarms them and they appreciate getting the medal on the day so it’s a good way to settle it.
Q: You’ve been in the thick of this event for 21 years - any particular standout moments?
A: Too many to relate, but 2004, when Roger Bannister visited us, was very special. It was 50 years after he broke the four-minute mile barrier. Colin Costello (Gormanston) won the senior boys’ 1500m that year and Ciara Durkin (Loreto Balbriggan) won the girls’. They were from the same parish which was very unusual. The Irish Milers Club also runs some races with us. James Nolan won The Mile that year and the first three home broke four minutes.
Q: The event always take place just a few days before the Leaving Cert starts. Is that a problem?
A: There are various state exams, North and South, around this time of year. Exam pressure is now enormous on final year students so there is a difficulty and I fully understand if senior athletes opt out. The calendar is so tight that it’s hard to find an alternative but it is always worth looking at in future.
Q: We keep hearing the next generation are ‘softer’ than previous and athletics is now a ‘minority sport’. Will this great competition maintain its status in Irish school sport?
A: Yes! I haven’t the slightest doubt that it will because every young child wants to run, jump and throw. If the right structures are in place then I feel they’ll continue to do that at either recreational or competitive level. Irish Schools Athletics has the structures in place now for it to bloom and flourish.
Q: Any wisdom to impart before the starting gun?
A: Roger Bannister once said: ‘However ordinary each of us may seem we are all in some way special and can do things that are extraordinary, perhaps, until then, even thought impossible.’ That’s what happens. They start out as one of 30,000 and some discover they have a real talent.
Q: And what will be your parting message today?
A: To leave with happy memories and understand they achieved something considerable. The child who finishes ninth or 10th is still in the top 10 or 12 in Ireland in their event and age group. That is a phenomenal achievement. You tell them that and hope they’ll continue on in athletics afterwards.
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