In light of Rob Heffernan’s recent success in athletics, Jonny Byrne looks to the future of Irish athletics and speaks to UCD athlete Ruari Finnegan
Undoubtedly the highlight of the year for Irish athletics was the World Championships, held in Moscow in August. Rob Heffernan secured a gold medal in the 50km walk in what were his fifth championships.
In terms of Irish success on the world stage, this was a rare win. It was Ireland’s first gold medal in a World Championships for a staggering 18 years. Focusing on the two big competitions, the Olympics and the World Championships, it’s interesting to take an in-depth look into Irish performances in recent times.
The Olympics are the epitome of any athlete’s aspirations. In recent years, Ireland has enjoyed great success in boxing, with a tally of seven medals between the Beijing and London Olympics. But, in terms of athletics, our last medal came in the famous women’s 5000 metre race in Sydney 13 years ago, courtesy of the old reliable Sonia O’ Sullivan. In fact, we haven’t won a gold medal in athletics in the Olympics since 1956.
Since O’Sullivan’s silver medal in Sydney, Ireland have secured three top eight finishes across the board, all in walking. Olive Loughnane came seventh in the women’s 20km walk in Beijing, while the man of the moment, Rob Heffernan, came eighth in the 20km walk in Beijing before moving up to the 50km for London 2012, finishing fourth.
In the last decade, we have had two medals in the World Championships; again dominated by our two walkers, Heffernan and Loughnane. With both achieving great success, Heffernan’s journey is particularly intriguing.
After an eighth place finish in Beijing, Heffernan pushed himself to finish fourth in London in a race of higher difficulty, but he didn’t give up there. Heffernan’s gold in the World Championships this summer was testament to the hard work he has put in since the Olympics. This steady and constant improvement is surely something any Irish athlete can look up to.
After taking a look at the past, it is interesting to take a look at what the future holds for Irish athletics. UCD student Ruari Finnegan currently represents the Ireland Junior Under 20s in the 1500m. His most recent outing was the European Championships held in Italy this summer and the University Observer was keen to find out about the process involved to represent Ireland from a young age when we spoke to him.
Speaking about how he started in athletics, Finnegan said, “When you get into first year of secondary school you begin. There are three different categories: junior, intermediate and senior schools. My first competition was when I was about 13 or 14-years-old for the Irish schools team, for a race in Glasgow. I didn’t start representing the Irish team itself until I was about 15 or 16.”
Every young athlete needs a role model to look up to. Although Finnegan mentioned the likes of Steve Cram, Seb Coe and Craig Mottram, he did speak highly of a number of Irish athletes. “Historically, you’ve got Eamon Coughlan and Sonia O’Sullivan. They’re always big names to look up to.
“At the minute, there are the likes of Rob Heffernan, or really any athlete at the minute who’s making it on the world stage for the Irish team are obviously very commendable. Sonia O’Sullivan follows me on Twitter. I’ve been on cross country trips with Fionnuala Britton, there are loads of people you get to know and speak to at different competitions.”
Speaking about Ireland’s poor performances in athletics during the London 2012 Olympics, Finnegan said, “The statistics aren’t favourable really, but I suppose the Olympics are the biggest competition in the world.”
He continued, “It’s such a high level of intense sport. In London, it was a younger team that was in the Olympics, so it would be very difficult for the younger athletes to transition into the Olympic stage. Give them a couple of years. Medals at the Olympics are a high ask really. We need to be aiming for finals and stop thinking about medals because it’s so difficult. Top 10, top 16 performances are most realistic from an Irish perspective.”
Maybe we do expect medals to be the be all and end all of Irish athletics. Do we remember Derval O’Rourke’s fourth place final finish in the 2009 World Championships? Was that not an outstanding achievement?
Thinking long term, Finnegan suggested that “Ireland needs to start focusing on a European level and more medals at European level rather than at a world stage. I think there’s a good bunch of talent coming through at the minute that’s underage. Hopefully, in a couple of years’ time, we can put it up to the world stage.”
Does the future look bright for Irish athletics? Finnegan was optimistic on the matter. He said, “There are numerous athletes between the 19 to 26-years-old bracket who are really starting to make an impact at a European level. I think give them 2 to 3 years, maybe Rio 2016, and they’ll be making their mark then on the world stage. I think the future is very bright.”
There is certainly a lot of sense in what Finnegan says. Ireland is not going to achieve athletic success overnight. After all, this is a country dominated by other sports like rugby, GAA and soccer.
For now, we should savour moments like Rob Heffernan’s gold medal win in the summer and maybe we’re waiting for a golden generation to come along and surprise us all. Who knows, it could be sooner than we expect.