Irish competitors are showing great promise in the field of athletics, but a lack of funding may limit their potential, writes Fearghal Bannon
Athletics has never really taken off in Ireland. The smaller, more low-key events are often ignored, and only when a native athlete is setting the world alight in his or her respective field do the nation’s eyes turn to athletic sports. The middle-to-low standard athletes are too often ignored, while thousands flocked to Croke Park for Irish soccer matches during Steve Staunton’s tenure as manager.
With relatively little media coverage in Ireland, the IAAF World Championships, hosted this year in Daegu, South Korea, have just come and gone. Ignoring some unfortunate injuries, we can be left in no doubt that Irish athletics is in a good place at the moment.
The World Championships however, are just the epilogue to a much more important issue, as they come off the back of the decision by Athletics Ireland to only bring athletes who have acquired A-standards to the 2012 London Olympics.
In every event in athletics there are what is known as A- and B-standards, and this ranking system is used to distinguish the current top athletes from the rest, with the A-Standard being the top tier competitors. This prevents the likes of Usain Bolt from having to compete against the journeymen of the sport, and ensures a competitive meet. Denying B-standard athletes though, especially promising youngsters, from experiencing the Olympics can only hinder their development.
Unfortunately the Irish Athletics Council’s funding is so restricted that they will not budge on the issue. In order for this controversial decision to be validated, Athletics Ireland would need all A-standard athletes to completely outperform their B-standard counterparts.
Step in 29-year old Deirdre Ryan, Irish high jumper and holder of the Irish woman’s record for the high jump. After two injury plagued seasons she lost all funding last year, despite being the national record holder. Rather than give up, she paid her own way in training, by moving to Germany and working a part-time job.
The very fact that she acquired a B-standard to make the Championships is an accomplishment in itself. Ryan not only made the finals of the high jump but set her personal best of 1.95 metres, and finished 6th in the championships. Had Athletics Ireland imposed the cutbacks for the World Championships, Ryan would not have even been at the tournament.
The overall performance of the Irish team was very encouraging, despite their setbacks. Ireland lost their two best medal prospects, David Gillick and Derval O’Rourke, to injury, the latter during her semi-final warm-up. 20km and 50km star walker Robert Heffernan also withdraw from the championship, due to a family bereavement.
Three athletes, including Ryan, made their respective finals. Ciaran O’Lionaird was the bolter of the squad, having come from virtually nowhere to earn an A-standard just before the tournament started. The 24-year old set out his stall for the future with some impressive runs, while Alistair Cragg finally delivered on his potential to make it to the finals of the 5000 metre final.
With the current blend of youth and experience, London 2012 could prove to be a successful Olympics for Irish athletics. Medals may be beyond our grasp, but we can realistically expect one or two athletes to make their finals. Considering the strains of the national set-up and limited pool of athletes, this in itself would be a success.
The big disappoint remains that young Irish B-standard athletes won’t be allowed to experience the Olympics in all their glory, where they would gain vital experience for potential future success. Athletics Ireland are adamant that they can’t afford to send B-standard athletes to the Olympics, but if athletics is to develop into a major sport in Ireland, they can’t afford not to.