Saturday, 25 March 2017

If you trample on my dreams, don’t be surprised when I stop dreaming

My earliest memory of the World Cross Country Championships was on March 21st 1992. I was sitting in the back of the Lada, along with my three brothers, on our way to visit Granny, as was normal for a Sunday afternoon. My mum, eager not to miss any significant sporting result, had the radio on, and news was coming through that Catriona McKiernan had won a silver medal in Boston. Her Irish teammate, Sonia O’Sullivan, had finished seventh.

I hadn’t even ran my first cross country race at that time – I still believed then that the lunchtime kickabouts with the boys in our small country primary school was going to catapult me to Wexford GAA stardom – but for some reason that news stuck with me. My memory may be romantically selective, but I can’t remember too many other sporting result from those days. Ok, so Italia ’90 was pretty big, the Wexford hurlers always seemed to lose, and Barry McGuigan won some significant boxing match very late one night. But apart from that, nothing.

I couldn’t have comprehended then what Catriona or Sonia had just achieved, nor could I have imagined the success that lay ahead for them both. Still, something told me that we were punching well above our weight on the world cross country running scene.

Women participating and achieving in sport had already been normalised for me about two decades before I became aware that there are barriers preventing females from competing in competitive sport. And, more importantly, when I started running 10 months later, I had something to aspire to.

Who’s apathy?

The World Cross Country Championships will take place tomorrow in Kampala, Uganda, and there won’t be a single Irish representative at the event. Despite our women’s team finishing fifth four years ago in Poland and winning European team bronze medals twice since, the 2017 edition of the world’s greatest distance race never seemed to register on the Athletics Ireland radar.

The apathy of the athletes will of course be blamed, but the problem is bigger than that. The lack of commitment to send athletes to this event was so great that the Athletics Ireland selection policy document – which appeared on the High Performance section of the governing body’s website as an afterthought some time in December – contains the incorrect distances for the senior race.

With other competitive opportunities available to athletes, selection criteria along the lines of ‘we’ll send you if we think you’re good enough’ does nothing to secure their commitment. And with the bar for good enough being so high (top 20) that only two-time European Champion Fionnuala McCormack has surpassed it since 2005, is it any wonder that athletes fail to set their sights on the event? 2013 was the only time since 2008 that a scoring team, in any category, was sent. Indeed Ireland have only sent a full senior women’s team three times since they last medalled in 2002; that’s less than a handful of times in the memories of the very athletes we’d be expecting to make this their dream!


While the World Cross Country Championships has long been a precarious dream for the Irish distance runner, the rapid, downward spiral of British interest can be pinpointed to a single monumental selection error in 2010. Despite a similarly vague selection policy to the one seemingly adopted by the Irish and an uncertainty over what exactly needed to be achieved, athletes went into the trial event that year full of hope. The top three in the senior men’s race – Mo Farah and Andy Vernon, along with Mumin Gala, who was not eligible for selection – were well ahead of the field. Mike Skinner followed. Next came a large group of talent, young and old, in an exciting and ever-changing battle for the remaining places in the top six. Phil Hinch, James Walsh, and a 19 year old James Wilkinson eventually out smarted and out ran their rivals, putting themselves in prime position for selection.

Three days later Hinch and Walsh learned that they were not included in the team. They didn’t receive so much as a phonecall to inform them that only Farah, Vernon, Skinner and Wilkinson would be sent to Poland. In summary, they were too old and had not yet achieved enough in the sport to be part of the team.

There went Hinchie’s lifetime dream, and along with it the dreams and aspirations of those who looked on in admiration as the hard work finally looked to be paying dividends for the 31 year old.

Britain will have no representatives in the senior men’s race tomorrow.

It’s not the taking part, it’s the winning that counts

Many ‘experts’ within British and Irish athletics believe that it’s impossible for Europeans to be competitive at this event any longer; that if you’re not going to be at the head of the field then there’s no point in competing, and, most worryingly, that if black people are dominating a world championship, then something needs to be done at a global level to ‘fix’ it.  

If a young Irish athlete happens to be watching the World Championships tomorrow, like I once did, and fails to be inspired or motivated by it, it won’t be because the kids at the front are black, or because the Irish athletes are not high enough to be competitive. It’ll be because the complete lack of Irish representatives suggest that they may never get the opportunity to take on those young men and women from East Africa; because they’ll have been constantly told that this isn’t an event that they should aspire to; and because they’ll be disillusioned to death with the uninspiring, poorly informed commentary which feeds the vicious circle that has become European interest (or disinterest) in World Cross Country, at every available opportunity.

I never achieved my dream of racing at the World Cross Country Championships, but at least I had, for a while, the opportunity to try. Let's ensure that future generations do too.

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