Time for Athletics Ireland to invest in the future

Four athletes – no matter which way you dress it up, is a number that should cause concern.

Gina Akpe-Moses created history winning the European U20 100m title in 11.71 seconds in Grosseto, Italy. Pic: Feidhlim Kelly

Thomas Barr, Brian Gregan, Ciara Mageean and Mark English are the only Irish track athletes to qualify for next month’s World Championships, and with the deadline closing after the National Senior Championships tomorrow night, that is where it will end.

High on quality, but where, it’s fair to ask, is the quantity?

Earlier this year Athletics Ireland announced eight athletes for the marathon and race walks in London, but those are events in which we rarely have a problem qualifying due to comparatively weak standards.

The true health check for the state of the sport comes on the track or in the field, where stricter standards ensure only the top 50 or so in the world make the cut. And while we remain respectable on the track, Irish athletics is becoming redundant in the field.

In the five years since their last visit to London for the 2012 Olympics, they have had only one competitor in a field event at a global championship – the now-retired Tori Pena, who was born, raised and trained in the US but elected to represent Ireland.

Last year we sent more than 50 athletes to the European Championships – where qualifying standards were as weak as it gets in international competition – but just two in the field events, one of whom was Pena.

Facilities here are on par with many prospering athletics nations, but these days the great chasm between us and them exists in the area of coaching.

After all the last home-grown, world-class field eventer Ireland produced was Deirdre Ryan, who moved to Germany in 2009 to get the expertise she needed. Later that year she set an Irish record of 1.95m to finish sixth at the World Championships.

Talk to our best and they’ll usually tell you that they succeed despite rather than because of the system. But let’s not cast stones from an unbalanced stance: Athletics Ireland has made giant strides in coaching structures in recent years, running countless workshops and weekend courses to upskill the hundreds of volunteer coaches whose ability will determine the sport’s future.

At some point, though, the association needs to dig deep into its coffers and appoint a full-time director of coaching, and it has to be someone of international repute, one whose results speak louder than a powerpoint presentation that can easily fool a boardroom.

Our best athletes could then be handed over to this coach, or failing that, their own coaches could up-skill themselves by having a world-class mentor to offer guidance.

But we don’t have that and the reason is simple – money. At least a six-figure salary would be needed to attract such a name.

So where could it come from? Simple: the association already utilises the running boom as a means of funding high-performance, and it’s time to push that further.

It could place a higher levy on race permits, add a small fee to each membership subscription or utilise their clout to organise a series of road races – all designed to milk the road-running boom the way private companies are already doing, only in this case the money funnels directly towards recruiting world-class coaches.

If Barcelona fans are happy to fork out €70 for a jersey made for a fraction of that cost on the basis that at least they’re helping to pay Lionel Messi’s wages, then the Irish running population won’t be traumatised by handing over a few extra quid so our brightest talents can be placed in the best hands. But who should you get? All evidence suggests the glory days of Irish distance running are extinct, so the drive should be directed towards the sprints, short middle distance and field events – in other words, a technical specialist.

In recent weeks opinion has been mixed about the transfer of allegiance of British sprinter Leon Reid – whose maternal mother was from Belfast – and though it’s a pity he won’t get it through in time for London, there’s enough talent here that we should be more concerned about.

At the European U20 Championships yesterday, Ireland had two girls in the 100m final for the first time since 1979, with Gina Akpe-Moses taking gold

It’s in the sprints and field events that the majority of underage records are falling, the names breaking them suggesting that the influx of immigrants has gifted Irish athletics with a talented gene pool it never had access to before.

But there are other problems. Today in Italy our major medal hope is Michaela Walsh in the hammer, an event in which Eileen O’Keeffe finished sixth in the world in 2007.

Last month I asked Walsh, shortly after she smashed two records at the Irish Schools Championships, whether she had she ever met O’Keeffe. She hadn’t, which suggests the association is placing little value on athlete mentoring.

Athletes like her are talented and hard-working enough to make it at senior level, and their coaches are doing their damnedest with the limited resources they have, but there remains a great void between where they are and where they hope to be. The best way to make world class athletes is to have world class coaches.

The talent is already there, but who will lead it to the top?



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