Sports

Ian O’Riordan: What comes next for the world-class Irish athlete?


Every athlete has their own different idea about when the track and field season begins for real. For some it might be the Dublin graded meetings, already under way and taking place each second Wednesday throughout the summer, always teasing with fresh possibilities and barriers to be broken.

Others might see it as today’s Belfast Irish Milers meet, staged in the leafy surrounds of the Mary Peters Track, conditions promising and also real excitement over what Nicholas Griggs might run for 1,500m. He’s still only 17 remember, and already a sub-four minute miler indoors.

For the already world-class athlete it’s all beginning too with the 2022 Diamond League, the first of those meetings taking place in Doha today (Friday). Things are about to get busy.

No thanks to the pandemic and last year’s postponed Tokyo Olympics, for the first time in athletics history there will be a World Championships (in Oregon in July) and a European Championships (in Munich in August) in the same summer. For anyone interested, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham are also squeezed in between.

There’s another World Championships in Budapest next summer, before the 2024 Olympics in Paris, plus another European Championships in Rome that same summer. That’s a lot of races to be run and medals to be won, and for the world-class Irish athlete the opportunities have never been so many.

Only where are they right now when in recognition at least they seem to be so few?

The Diamond League – born out of the old IAAF Grand Prix, then the Golden League – is now in its 13th series, a sort of premiership of one-day meetings, with the promise of a diamond-studded trophy and thick wad of cash for the winners of each of the 32 events, naturally split between men and women.

Originally scheduled as 13 meetings before the Grand Final in Zurich in September, the two Chinese stops – in Shanghai and Shenzhen – were cancelled earlier this month, the pandemic seeing to that too, the addition of the Chorzow event in August making for 12 events before the Zurich final.

Irish TV

Just don’t go looking for any of it on Irish TV: of the 214 countries and territories affiliated with World Athletics, only 18 did not buy into some live or highlights package, ourselves and Bhutan and Cambodia and North Korea among them.

Seven individual gold medal winners from Tokyo were on show in Doha, plus several other World champions and Olympic relay winners, and the only Irish world-class athlete among them was Thomas Barr, who began his season in the 400m hurdles.

Racing in desert-storm like conditions, Barr finished an excellent third in 49.67, behind two Tokyo medal winners, Alison dos Santos from Brazil taking the win ahead of American Rai Benjamin.

No Irish athlete has featured more regularly and performed more consistently on the Diamond League circuit in recent years than Barr, the 29-year-old from Waterford far from finished yet.

Considering his event is unquestionably among the most competitive in the world right now this is no easy feat, with Benjamin, who clocked 46.17 seconds in Tokyo last summer and still had to bow to the superiority of the young Norwegian Karsten Warholm.

With the possible inclusion of fellow Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen winning the 1,500m, Warholm winning the 400m hurdles was the outstanding athletics moment in Tokyo for most if not all. His time of 45.94 seconds broke his own world record by over three-quarters of a second, a seemingly impossible barrier to boot, and at age 26 Warholm is far from finished yet either. His win in Tokyo will stand the test of time as one of the greatest races in Olympic history, even as the event continues to soar.

Barr fell one spot short of making that final, running in the same semi-final as Warholm and Benjamin, his time of 48.28 the second fastest of his life, after the 49.97 he clocked when finishing fourth in the Rio Olympics five years earlier. Barr also hit the fourth last hurdle coming into the straight, which might have knocked over a lesser athlete.

“Someone could throw a brick at me from the stands and I will still go,” Barr told us soon afterwards. “Someone could fall in front of me. I just focus on what’s in front of me. If I wasn’t mentally strong I might have shut it. It will be tougher now watching the final, knowing I could have been in it. I just hope they run so fast I would have been nowhere near the medals.”

Ultimate reward

Barr’s ultimate reward for that effort was being dropped off podium-tier funding when Sport Ireland announced its International Carding Scheme last week, the first time since the scheme began that no Irish track or field athlete was considered good enough to make that grade.

In all €3.08 million was divided between 112 athletes and 10 relays/squads, across 16 sports, almost all others having at least one athlete on the podium-tier funding of €40,000, 19 in all, including rowing, boxing, sailing and gymnastics. Barr is now on the tier below, at €25,000, along with Ciara Mageean, Fionnuala McCormack and Brendan Boyce, the rest another tier below again.

It’s unfair and probably unnecessary to compare the podium chances in one sport over another, as if claiming mine is bigger than yours, except to say it’s never been harder in athletics history to make the podium in a track and field event like the 400m hurdles.

It might also be unfair to compare what Athletics Ireland is doing to successfully nurture the next generation of world-class athletes compared to other sports, except to say Sport Ireland is not entirely convinced by its efforts.

In an exceptional Irish high-performance funding decision it drops off the top spot down to third, behind rowing (jumping from eighth to first) and Paralympics Ireland, more worrying perhaps the lack of any real increase in Paris cycle funding, enjoyed by almost all other Olympic sports.

That comes on top of the Tokyo Games Review, also published last week and particularly damning of the Irish athletics performance, highlighting the “lack of resource and coaching structures” in the build-up to the Games, the “challenges” within the talent pathway and the programme structure, and the need to “create clarity in funding decisions which are accountable and transparent”.

Some stakeholders noted the code of conduct “could have been made more accountable and enforceable”, which is both worrying and troublesome because there is no great hope for the next world-class Irish athlete without a world-class high-performance programme to match.



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