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Green Shoots for Irish Athletics Amid the Sport’s Uncertainty

Writes Sam Curtin, Deputy Sports Editor

There may not be a huge amount of positivity around at the moment, but Irish athletics is a notable exception. It has been a mixed year so far for the sport with Olympic uncertainty and the tragic passing of the legendary athlete, coach and pundit Jerry Kiernan who was taken far too soon in January of this year. On the track, a record 24 athletes make up the Irish contingent heading into next weekend’s European Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland.

Heading the team will be former medallists Mark English and Ciara Mageean, both of whom head to Poland in good form judging by the recent indoor meet held for elite athletes at Abbottstown last Saturday week. English ran a national indoor record in the 800m running 1:46 and looks set to be in contention for a third medal in the event. Mageean is coming off a fantastic couple of years winning bronze in the 1500m at the same event in Glasgow 2019 before making her first global final at senior level running a personal best in the fastest women’s 1500m final in history.

Although they along with Thomas Barr have been the stalwarts of Irish athletics in recent years, there is a plethora of promising talent coming through. English will be joined in the 800m by 18-year-old Longford native Cian McPhillips who ran 1.46.13 which is the second fastest U20 time in European indoor 800m history and the sixth in world history. This is quite an astonishing feat considering McPhillips is sitting his Leaving Cert this year and previously said that the proposals for the exams positively impacted his running. Did I mention that 1500m is his favourite distance? While English will be expected to challenge for medals, McPhillips will be looking to gain valuable championship running experience where athletes have to race three times in three days.

Not to be outdone, there is a strong female contingent running in the 800m with the most positive thing being the unprecedented amount of depth in the discipline. 24-year-old Nadia Power ran a personal best and national indoor record in an international meet just a couple of days before Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner who ran 2:00.58 to break the record in America which moves her up to 4th in the European rankings with 4 Irish women in the top 20 world rankings despite only 3 allowed to compete in Poland. The duo will be joined by Georgie Hartigan who won the Abbottstown meet.

Other athletes to watch out for is Cork’s Phil Healy who will compete in the 400m and is in the form of her life right now. If Healy can make her first senior final then she can take great momentum into the summer outdoor season where her quest for Olympic qualification will begin in earnest. Other athletes who will have eyes on a final include Leon Reid who goes in the 60m and the 3000m trio of John Travers, Darragh McElhinney and Seán Tobin who all have realistic chances of making the final.

Of course, amidst all the excitement about the dawn of a new era for Irish athletics, it begs the question of why are there so many records falling left, right and centre? It is part of a wider issue particularly with the advancement of shoe technology which has caused its fair share of controversy. Nike have been testing the waters with the Air Zoom Alphafly Next Gen which contains special foam and a carbon plate which has been proven to make runners a lot faster.

Why has this been so controversial? Nike has been accused of “technical doping”. The vast majority of athletes using them ran personal bests including many sprinters reportedly taking 0.3 seconds off their 100m record. That would mean that a top-level sprinter who is still not on the same level as Usain Bolt, could feasibly break his world record of 9.59 which puts the entire integrity of the event into question. The most famous example however is Kenyan Eliod Kipchoge when he ran an unofficial marathon in under 2 hours back in October 2019 wearing the maligned show. This is more than 2 minutes quicker than his official world record.

This goes back to the recent success of Irish athletes where the shoes certainly played a part. One Irish Olympian upon receiving the shoes as a present said she “ felt like a fraud” when she took more than 20 seconds off her 5km PB but knew that it was the new shoe rather than her making improvements in training. Most athletes using the shoe have said that they are not as hard on the calves and are able to recover much quicker thus being able to train harder for longer which is what every athlete is trying to do.

This is just the latest controversy in a long PR battle for Nike who have not been helped by the fact that many athletes sponsored by the giant have been reluctant to publicly praise their sponsors due to the stigma attached to using the shoes but also the brand itself. The public release of the Air Zoom came just after the confirmation of a 4 year ban for Alberto Salazar for doping some of his athletes who trained under him as part of the Nike Oregon Project. Many athletes described his training environment as “horrible” where athletes were routinely criticised for their weight and physical appearance. They were also intimidated into doing certain training practices and doping.

However, money talks as we are seeing more and more companies copying the Nike shoe with the likes of New Balance now using the same prototype as their rivals. Adidas have reportedly designed an extremely advanced shoe compared to other competitors and will be released just before the Tokyo Olympics.

All of this along with trying to find the new mainstream, global superstar which will propel athletics back into the mainstream media on a more regular basis, á la Usain Bolt. The likes of 400m world record holder Wayde Van Niekerk have been touted as being the successor but the reality is, athletics is in the rebuilding phase to regain its credibility as a sport which the casual fans should invest time in. What happens at the Olympic Games will tell a lot about the direction of the sport where a landslide of new world records are expected in the near future.

Despite the ongoing challenges for athletics as its ongoing battle for relevancy and its reputation continue, there is a very real feeling of optimism and excitement that the production line is getting an awful lot more exciting on these shores. Fancy shoes or not, nothing beats hard work and a little bit of talent, something of which we are going to see in spades by athletes donning the Irish singlet. Starting with potentially 2-3 medals this weekend.

Jerry would be proud, and I am sure he is.

Ireland team: 60m: Leon Reid, Israel Olatunde, Dean Adams, Ciara Neville, Joan Healy, Molly Scott; 400m: Phil Healy, Sophie Becker, Sharlene Mawdsley; 800m: Mark English, Cian McPhillips, John Fitzsimons, Nadia Power, Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner, Georgie Hartigan; 1500m: Andrew Corcoran, Paul Robinson, Luke McCann, Ciara Mageean; 3,000m: John Travers, Seán Tobin, Darragh McElhinney, Michelle Finn; 60m hurdles: Sarah Lavin.