At a time when Irish athletics – in an official, organisational capacity – was ducking for cover, taking a very public beating, it was left to those who so long papered over its cracks – the athletes – to inject some positivity.
First there was the Irish shot put record set by Eric Favors, the 25-year-old throwing 20.07m in Puerto Rico last Thursday. Then there was the national 800m record set by Louise Shanahan in Belfast on Saturday, the Leevale athlete clocking 1:59.42 to edge Ciara Mageean in a thriller.
Then came the best of the lot: the 50.70 400m run by Rhasidat Adeleke in Texas on Sunday, the Dubliner now the fastest Irishwoman of all time at 60m, 200m, 300m and 400m – all at the age of 19.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s not, but the thing the three senior record breakers have in common is they’re all based abroad, each having about as much to do with Athletics Ireland’s high-performance system as Allyson Felix or Karsten Warholm.
For so long it’s been this way, our best performers – from Sonia O’Sullivan to Catherina McKiernan, Fionnuala McCormack to Rob Heffernan to Thomas Barr – building their own high-performance setups whether at home or abroad.
It’s now 12 days since Sport Ireland unveiled this year’s high-performance funding allocations, and athletics was the big loser – one of few sports whose funding will remain virtually static for the Paris Olympic cycle which, at a time of rapid inflation, constitutes an effective reduction.
That was the shot, which will inevitably harm Irish athletics, but the Tokyo 2020 Review was the chaser – one that leaves the current system looking more than a little legless. It lifted the lid on the underperformance of the Irish team in Tokyo, with coaches and athletes banging a drum that’s as familiar now as it was 20 years ago.
There was not enough accountability and transparency with funding decisions; there wasn’t enough support for athletes not based within reach of the Sport Ireland Campus. The chief recommendation – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – centred on a need to “embed individual coaches into the system” and ensure they were “a valued aspect of the ecosystem.”
Having spoken at length to coaches on this topic, it’s clear the current system is both utterly dependent on their work while being utterly unable or unwilling to reward them for it.
The truth is, it’s not money that makes the likes of Shane McCormack, Noelle Morrissey, Feidhlim Kelly or Jeremy Lyons show up trackside several times a week. They did it long before they had Olympians in their care. But there’s something absurd about a system that sees the dozens of hours they dedicate to it each week go unrewarded – all as the physios, psychologists, nutritionists and high-performance employees are paid.
The decision by Sport Ireland to punish athletics for its under-performance in Tokyo might be understandable, but it’s also deeply unsettling. It hints at a move to mimic the British approach whereby money is funnelled into sports where medals are easier to farm through finances, regardless of participation figures or the number of medals won outside the Olympics.
Athletics, due to its truly global depth, is more resistant to monetisation of the medal rostrum than, say, rowing or sailing, and as the marquee Olympic sport it’s worth noting a medal there would carry significantly more impact, both at home and abroad, than in most other sports.
The thing is, the talent is there. Always has been. Always will be. But how it’s nurtured and how we, as a nation, support those doing that nurturing is so often changing – and so often lacking.
Ireland currently has three reigning European U20 champions – Adeleke, Nick Griggs and Cian McPhillips. Sitting in a press event a few years ago with Adeleke and her mother, I can recall a member of the Irish media trying their best to put the teenage star off going to the US, telling her she’d be run into the ground, that it would ruin her career.
By ignoring that and choosing the University of Texas, and one of the world’s best coaches in Edrick Floreal, she’s shown that to be utter nonsense. Her previous coaches Johnny Fox and Daniel Kilgallon did a brilliant job – in an unpaid capacity – to nurture her talent before she left, but it says so much about the system in Ireland that the best thing you’d hope for Adeleke’s future is that she has nothing to do with it.