For many months now, Irish athletes have been striking the same chord when talking about the IAAF World Championships, which get under way in London tomorrow evening.
“The closest we’ll get to a home championships,” is what they keep saying, and it’s true, a line that highlights in one breath what a rare and precious opportunity lies ahead.
The squad lost a key figure yesterday with the withdrawal of Paul Pollock, whose true marathon potential will remain untapped for another season, the Belfast man struck down with two stress fractures in his foot.
That leaves a battle-hardened team of 11 where experience will not be lacking, given seven of them competed on the grandest stage of all last year in Rio.
When digging around for possible medal chances, it doesn’t make much sense to look further than the two leading Irish performers at the Olympics: Thomas Barr and Rob Heffernan.
In Barr, Irish athletics uncovered a gem with an ability to raise his game come crunch time, a rare asset in a sport where the default setting for so many is to underperform in the cauldron of a big stadium.
Last year Barr was five hundredths of a second away from an Olympic medal, his national record of 47.97 placing him fourth in Rio, which remains one of the greatest feats in Irish athletics history.
But can he repeat the trick in 2017? Last year Barr missed 11 weeks of training on his build-up with a hip injury, while this season he missed 12 days with a foot problem, two weeks with a hamstring tear, but other than that has had a clean run.
He goes in with a season’s best of just 48.95, which puts him 26th on the world rankings. Expecting anything beyond a semi-final is fanciful, and a medal remains wishful thinking, even if the Waterford man has shown us he can conjure up a performance when it matters most.
“At a big championships,” he said last week, “I know I can step up to the mark.”
One man who has mastered that art is Rob Heffernan who, at 39, is 14 years Barr’s senior but appears to hold a much stronger medal claim in London.
It is, of course, the same site where Heffernan took the Olympic bronze medal over 50km back in 2012, even if that took a few years to come through due to a doping disqualification. This time around, there will be no such Russians to worry about — the majority are still sitting out after their state-sponsored doping system was uncovered — so Heffernan could well be in the medal hunt.
In an event where the contenders rarely show their cards until the big day, it’s impossible to gauge his form, but he has struck a confident tone in recent weeks, a recent warm-weather training trip to Spain polishing his preparations for what may well be his walk into retirement on Sunday week.
His training partner, Brendan Boyce, has transformed himself into a world-class performer in recent years, though a top-12 finish may be the ceiling of his ability, at least for now.
Ciara Mageean will be the first of the Irish into battle in the heats of the women’s 1500m tomorrow evening, and that’s a bridge she should cross with ease. However, it was at the semi-final stage of the Olympics that she was found wanting last year, and given she is ranked 20th in the world, she will have to either get lucky or produce the run of her life — possibly both — to earn her place in the 12-woman final.
For Mark English in the 800m and Brian Gregan in the 400m, escaping their heats should be considered a success. Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner, the youngest member of the Irish team, will see no downside to her tilt at the women’s 800m, aware that no matter how well or woeful it may go, it will be the first of many for the 22-year- old.
Claire McCarthy is Ireland’s sole representative in the women’s marathon on Sunday afternoon and like Cléirigh-Buttner, the success has been in getting there — anything close to her personal best of 2:38:00 would be a bonus.
Mick Clohisey and Seán Hehir will take to the streets earlier in the day for the men’s marathon, and again, performances in the region of 2:15, close to their personal bests, should be their target in an event where cracking the top 30 would be a huge feat.
Internationally, all eyes will be trained on Mo Farah in the men’s 10,000m tomorrow night, where he should have too much pace for his Kenyan rivals, and the same can be said for Usain Bolt in the 100m final on Saturday night. The Jamaican, who’s always had an impeccable sense of timing, appears ready to sign off in style with another world title.
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