Thursday, 27 April 2017

Eight Irish female athletes to follow this summer

With the cross country season long forgotten and track season already stuttering into life, it’s high time to highlight some of the Irish females to look out for this summer.

Another difficult summer lies ahead for the Irish athletes and medals on the world stage are more of a hope than an expectation. There is some degree of transition after last year’s Olympics, a disappointing indoor season will have dampened spirits, and, as ever, the injury list is far longer than anyone would like.  Having said that, some athletes are definitely in a position to build on a successful 2016, and the current crop of juniors is as exciting as ever, if not more so. There may even be a slight glimmer of hope in some of the field events!

In addition to the World Championships in London and the European Team Championships in Finland, the younger athletes will be aiming for European Youth Olympic Festival, European Junior Championships, European U23 Championships and World University Games qualification.
Here are just some of the names I’m looking forward to following in the coming months.

Fionnuala McCormack: The queen of cross

It’s on the grass that Fionnuala McCormack, the undisputed queen of Irish Cross Country, is at her most comfortable, and while she has represented Ireland in four different disciplines over three Olympic Games, her summer performances haven’t yet lived up to her winter promise. Fionnuala remains in that uncomfortable position between a competitive force - if not quite a world beater - on the track, and an emerging marathon runner oozing with potential. Despite her notable endurance background, she is remarkably under-raced on the roads and time-wise she hasn’t quite set the tar-mac alight with her rare efforts over the half and full marathon distances to date. What the Wicklow woman lacks in recordings against the clock, however, she more than makes up for with her championship record, and the fact that her best marathon so far came in the heat of Rio, suggests that fast personal bests are not everything.

But they do stand for something, and with that in mind, McCormack’s plan is to aim for the 10,000m qualifying time for London, and have a serious crack at a big city marathon in the Autumn. She, like those of us following her progress, know that faster times lie ahead.

Fionnuala’s 10,000m PB is 31:29.22 from 2012; her best last season was 31:30.74. She needs a time of 32:15.00 for London.  However, with four athletes breaking the 30 minute barrier in Rio, much faster will be required from the Wicklow woman if she hopes to feature come August. Her marathon PB of 2:31:22 has already earner her selection for London should she decide to contest the longer distance in the British capital.

Ciara Mageean: Carrying the weight of expectation

You always get the sense that the weight of public expectation rests lightly on Ciara Mageean’s shoulders and that her precocious talent is more of a motivation than a burden. Just as well since, as our one genuine potential female medallist on the world stage, she regularly carries the hopes of a nation.

On paper, the Irish team travelled to Amsterdam for the European Track Championships last summer with zero chances of a medal. They left the Netherlands with silverware thanks to McGeehan’s brilliance and grit. In hindsight, the bronze medal that she won in the 1500m was a disappointing result – a measure of her ability rather than a criticism of her effort. Reaching the semi-final of the Olympics was a further step to fulfilling her potential, but it was the world class time of 4:01.46 which she achieved in Paris at the end of last season that confirmed Mageean’s global medal potential.
The past indoor season didn’t go according to plan, and while images of Ciara hobbling off the track injured in Belgrade brought back memories of the Portaferry woman’s darkest days, it seems that her failure to finish at the European Indoor Championships was but a minor blip on the bumpy road to the top.

The World Championship qualification time in the metric mile is 4:07.50, something which should be but a formality for Ciara. Anything less than a place in the final will be a disappointment – both for Ciara and for those across Ireland willing her on. And once she’s in the final…

Christine McMahon: One lap wonder

Another to excel in Amsterdam last July was Christine McMahon who reached the semi-final of the 400m hurdles. The Ballymena and Antrim athlete chipped away at her personal best throughout a summer which also saw her graduate from Dentistry at Queen’s University Belfast, and she eventually got inside the Olympic qualifying time on 16th July, two days after the date by which performances needed to be recorded.

Unfortunately for McMahon, unlike Olympic qualification periods which cover two track seasons, times from last year won’t count towards London selection, and she must do it all again this year if she is to take her place on the startline in London. Fingers crossed the stars line up for her a little earlier this summer.

The qualifying time for London is 56.10. Christine’s best is 56:07. She is also eligible for the World University Championships where a time in the low 56’s would put her in contention for the medals.

Sarah Buggy: One step at a time

St Abban’s athlete Sarah Buggy hopped, stepped and jumped her way to number two on the Irish all-time list for the triple jump last summer, and the 23 year old’s best of 13.25 metres is within striking distance of Taneisha Scanlon’s Irish record (13.62). Sarah picked up where she left off in 2016 with a stellar indoor campaign. She again leaped to number two on the domestic indoor list, and got within 10 cm of Scanlon’s Irish indoor record.

Buggy is still some way off the standard required to compete on the world’s biggest stage, and the qualification standard for London, at 14.10 metres, may well be a stretch too far at this stage. But other international competition opportunities are well within her reach. The standard for August’s World University Games is 13.35. And there are those two Irish records to target in the near future.

The problem with talented field eventers in Ireland is not that they don’t exist, but that they exist in isolation. Buggy is a metre and a half ahead of everyone else at the moment. Wouldn’t now be a nice time to see the return of the long-injured Caoimhe King who has a best of 12.96m from 2014?

Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner: Barriers to be broken

Each year the hopes of an Irish woman finally breaking the two-minute barrier for the 800m are pinned on a different athlete. Rose-Anne Galligan, Laura Crowe, Ciara Everard and Ciara Mageean have all been pretenders to the throne, and while all these will be looking to continue the quest, Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner more than has her name pencilled in as Ireland’s next sub-2 challenger. The Villanova student has a current PB of 2:01.98 and improved her indoor best to 2:02.97 earlier this year. It would be nice, too, to see what the Dublin native can run for 1500m. Her best of 4:22.37 dates back to May 2013 and is surly due a major revision.

The all-important qualification times required for this summer’s championships are 2:01.00 for World Championships in London; 2:04.80 for European U23s and 2:04.30 for World University Games.

Shona Heaslip: Dancing her way into contension

Former Irish dancing champion Shona Heaslip must surely be the most exciting prospect on the domestic distance running scene. She recently glided her way to the Irish University 5000m title, and knocked a whopping 29 seconds from her personal best in the process. Given her relative youth in the sport, the big PB is not a surprise, but the ease and manner of her victory were particularly noteworthy. With the World University Games qualification already in the bag, the Kerry woman will look to get into some fast races in the coming months. Once she gets under the 16 minute mark - which must surely be but a formality - Shona can start to concentrate on adding senior track representation to her cross country cap from December.

The qualifying time for London - at 15:22.00 - is still some way off, and chasing it down is unlikely to be Heaslip’s priority this year, but by 2018 the 15:30 or thereabouts that’ll be required to make the European Championships should be well within her reach. Like all distance runners, remaining injury free will be her main challenge.

Phil Healey: From the depths of hell

The epic finale to the women’s 4 x 400m relay at last summer’s IUAA Intervarsity Championships catapulted Phil Healey into the public consciousness. Only her second ever run over 400m, the UCC graduate’s heroics not only earner her recognition thanks to that now legendary footage, but accelerated her transition to the longer sprint. Given her undoubted speed and the fact that her opening foray over 400m places her just outside the Irish all-time top 10, Healey could well be a future international star in the one-lap event.

Fully expect Healey to smash the 53.49 personal best she set indoors in February when the outdoor season gets into full swing. The target for World University Games is 53.30, though she already has the 23.70 qualifying time for the 200m in Taipei. The London qualifying times of 52.10 and 23.10 will be on her radar, but probably just out of reach.

Michaela Walsh: Throwing down the gauntlet

Michaela Walsh, a 2016 World Junior shot put finalist and a hammer finalist from the 2015 World Youth Championships, is Ireland’s most promising thrower since Elaine O’Keeffe. Walsh’s National Junior Record of 59.64 – set in March this year – may well be distant history by the time the 18 year old fully graduates to the senior ranks, and the Swinford AC athlete will surely have O’Keeffe’s impressive senior hammer record (73.21 metres) in her mind as she continues to rise through the ranks.

The European Junior Championships A qualifying standards are 60.00 metres for the hammer and 15.30 metres for the shot put, though Michaela already has the two required B standards in the latter event and a B standard in the hammer.

And then…

Elsewhere, I’m hoping that the rivalry between our three Olympic steeplechasers – injuries permitting – can put Roisin McGettigan’s nine-year-old Irish record under threat; I’m looking forward to seeing what the ever-improving Emma Mitchell can achieve as she aims for Commonwealth Games qualification; I’m excited about the prospects of the young sprinting trio of Ciara Neville, Gina Akpe-Moses and Sharlene Mawdsley, and I’m curious as to how Sommer Lecky – the future of Irish high jumping - and Elizabeth Morland – emerging multi-event starlet - can progress.

All in all, there’s lots of reason for hope. But imagine the sense of optimism there would be if Mary Cullen, Sarah Lavin, Ciara Everard, Jessie Barr, Laura Crowe, Rose-Anne Galligan, Claire Tarplee – to name just a few – had an injury-free season, and if more of our talented juniors stayed in the sport long enough to fulfil their senior potential.

As always, predictions like this can be woefully off the mark. The most memorable performances of the summer will, no doubt, be the ones that nobody could have seen coming.

And hopefully those omitted will be even more inspired to make their mark!

For those interested, the full selection criteria for this summer's championships can be found on the High Performance section of the Athletics Ireland website.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Doping in athletics breaks my heart, but ignoring doping damages it beyond repair

Recently, when people I’ve met through sport ask me what sport I used to compete in – a piercing dagger through the sporting heart of someone who still trains six times a week – I feel that they look at me disdainfully when athletics is my reply. One minute, in their mind, I’m a past sportsperson, a has-been, the next I’m an athlete in that filthy sport of track and field.

Ouch! The knockout blow!

But I can’t complain. I’ve long found it difficult to take certain sports seriously. As soon as someone tells me they’re a cyclist, or a weightlifter, or an MMA fighter, I become sceptical. I find it difficult to believe that there is a clean professional cyclist out there, that the gigantism change in the physique of rugby players in the professional era is all down to doing weights and eating protein, and that rowing, one of the hardest sports out there, is as clean as it’s made out to be.

In truth, I don't take track and field performances all that seriously myself. I watched very little of the athletics in Rio, and celebrated even less of it, choosing instead to spend the summer following domestic athletics action. And running a few races myself.

And when I see a relatively unknown distance runner, who lives in Spain and is engaged to a pro cyclist, knocking 83 seconds off her 10km personal best and in doing so qualifying for the Olympics, I find it difficult to believe.

And that is not her fault (presuming, as we should do, that she is innocent of any wrongdoing).

Nor is it mine.

This is what decades of doping, deceit and denial has done to our sport.

Russian scapegoats

Fortunately for Seb Coe, the IAAF, WADA, and all those who wish to portray the image that they are doing something about it, Russia’s luck finally ran out. The fact that harsh sanctions came seven years after seven Russian female athletes were suspended for allegedly switching their urine samples (out-of-competition samples collected in May 2007 did not match those provided by the same athletes at the World Championships in Osaka later that summer, something which wouldn’t have been able to happen under normal testing procedures) – indicates just how reluctant the authorities are to nip a problem in the bud.

While those watching the sport with open eyes were shouting ‘dirty cheating Russians’ at the TV, bribes were lining the pockets of those whose very job it was to run the sport, and delaying any serious action.

Along comes Seb Coe and, conveniently for him, but unfortunately almost a decade too late for the sport, it’s finally politically convenient to do something about the Russians.

Meanwhile, knowledgeable fans continue to shout ‘dirty rotten cheats’ at the TV, this time at the Turks, the Kenyans, the Jamaicans, the Ukrainians…

But it’s all ok. The Russians are not competing. And Seb Coe is cleaning up the sport.

That’s the same Seb Coe that in August 2015, before the true extent of Russian doping became public and just before he was elected as IAAF President, stated – in response to leaked blood data - that “The idea that my sport sat there either covering up wrongdoing or just being incompetent could not be wider of the mark.”

But that’s exactly what the sport has been doing for decades.

“We cannot be portrayed as a sport that is in any way dragging our heels,” added Coe.

But dragging their heels, they continue to do.

When will we finally admit that things are bad?

Paul McNamara, recently appointed as the new High Performance Director of Athletics Ireland, stated in an interview with Newstalk earlier this month that he thinks “our sport is cleaner than it has ever been before.”

Of course he did. That's what we're always being told. That’s the party line. London, too, was the cleanest Olympics ever. And look how that turned out!

In relation to the evolution of men’s 5000m and 10000m times, McNamara said "Arguably one could pick a date in 1995 that started the beginning of the EPO boom…. It changed the landscape and those performances skyrocketed for approximately 10 years to unfathomable levels. It’s dropped off drastically since. There’s an obvious reason for that.”

McNamara was, to be fair, arguing that it is again realistic for young Irish athletes to target success at a world level, which is, at the end of the day, his job. We’ll conveniently ignore our own doping record, that a number of our racewalkers continue to train in Spain with a convicted drug cheat, and the fact that some of our most successful distance athletes achieved their success right in the middle of that 10 year period.

But most importantly, we’ll ignore the fact that those comments came just a few days after a pair of Kenya females went through the first 10k of a half marathon in a mind-blowing 30:02 minutes - a new world record for the distance – before one of them brought the world record for the 21.1km distance under 65 minutes for the first time (and ironically made Radcliffe’s world marathon mark look much less of an outlier).

The women’s 10,000m final in Rio made the storylines of a whole range of Disney movies positively plausible by comparison. The recent World Cross Country Championships – while entertaining, engaging and inspiring as a spectacle – were preposterous on a performance level. The world records of those suspicious Chinese athletes continue to fall. And Gulnara Galkina’s untouchable world steeplechase record was finally smashed last summer, by a far inferior technician.

And that’s without the dirty cheating Russians.

The 1990s may well have been the time for EPO fuelled records on the men’s side, but we can hardly put the recent evolution of records on the women’s side purely down to improved training practices and increased opportunities for females.

The Ben Johnson effect

I’m far too young to remember Ben Johnson running in Seoul. But I am old enough to have watched the footage several times since. And I know that observers back then wouldn’t have needed a positive test result to know that he was drugged up to the eyeballs. But that’s easy to say in hindsight.

How many Ben Johnson-esque performances have I witnessed since? How many world records and Olympic wins will I look back on in 10 or 20 years’ time and say, “Why, yes, of course she was doping; anyone could see that”? How many of today’s too-good-to-be-true performances will, down the road, be just that?

And, of course, Ben Johnson wasn’t the only athlete cheating in that 100m final in 1988. He was just the one they most wanted to catch. He was the Russia of his day. Catch him and it looked like they cared about keeping the sport clean.

Can we believe any of what we see?

Are there any clean athletes out there?  Yes, of course there are. I am one. And while I realise that my achievements barely register as performances, I know that there are athletes who work harder, are far more talented and have better race heads than I do, so I know that there are athletes at a higher level than me training and competing clean. Of that I am sure.

But it’s impossible to say exactly what is clean and what isn’t. I’ve heard it argued that Linford Christie’s athletes are definitely clean, that such-and-such is too nice to dope, and that thing-a-me-bob was an outstanding junior and junior athletes just don’t dope. And all this while steroid use among the gym going public is at epidemic levels, EPO is freely available on the internet and amateur athletes, with nothing significant to gain are being caught by the apparently underfunded anti-doping authorities.

It’s dangerous to tar all athletes from a certain country, training set-up or sport with the one brush – I’d hate for my performances, no matter how menial, to be judged by the actions and hypocrisy of my fellow countrymen.

And we’ll probably never know just how many top athletes are doping.

But, what we do know is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!

It would be nice if those in charge of the sport finally acknowledged that.