Athletics Ireland still running to stand still


ATHLETICS:The disturbing resignation of Anne Keenan-Buckley shows how the high performance aspect of Athletics Ireland continues to limp from one crisis to another

‘YOUR GAME is run by idiots. It’s not run by bright people.”

It was, by cosmic coincidence, while reading this exact line last Wednesday evening – Fifa president Sepp Blatter telling Sebastian Coe what he thought of the English FA – that a text message arrived telling me that Anne Keenan-Buckley was resigning as cross country coach with Athletics Ireland.

This didn’t sound very bright to me, and caught somewhere between a laugh and a tear, it seemed better I just read on, and this latest instalment of Coe’s new autobiography, Running My Life, published next Thursday, the best bits of which were serialised in the Times this week.

Coe is still walking around cloud number nine after chairing the incredible organisational success that became the London Olympics, although he’s not quite as proud about his role in England’s futile bid to stage the 2018 World Cup. Coe himself admits it had “the smell of death about it”, at least after the “vituperative nature” he discovered at his first bid meeting, and the “thinly disguised contempt around the table”.

Luckily for him, the “internecine warfare” (again, Coe’s words) within the English FA was the complete reverse of the spirit that ran the London Olympics: indeed Coe is now unopposed in the election for chairman of the British Olympic Association, which takes place next Wednesday, and is reportedly in the running for the British Order of Merit, the highest honour the Queen can confer on a person, and limited to 24 members at any one time – with Coe possibly taking up a vacancy that has existed since the death of Andrew Huxley, a Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist and physiologist.

Anyway, then I called Anne Keenan-Buckley, at her home in Portlaoise, and found a woman in no mood for a laugh, and seemingly on the verge of a tear.

For as long as I’ve known her, which is probably longer than either of us would care to admit, she’s been among the most honest and trusted and respected figures within Irish athletics, and her record proves it: she began running at age 14, competed at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and in extraordinary display of longevity, was still competing into her 40s, winning a World Cross Country team medal in 2001, and at the Europeans in 2003.

In 2006 she was named cross country coach with Athletics Ireland, a popular and reliable appointment, and along with the success of the men’s under-23 team gold at the 2010 European Cross Country, she was the first person to embrace Fionnuala Britton after her brilliant individual women’s gold in Slovenia last December.

So, to hear Keenan-Buckley say she was “very disillusioned with the management and direction of high performance within Athletics Ireland”, that she had no option but to resign with immediate effect, in the hope “that would be in the best interest of the athletes”, wasn’t so much disappointing as truly disturbing – and that it happened just five weeks before the 2012 European Cross Country in Hungary was almost laughable, if it wasn’t so critically serious.

Eventually, I tracked down John Foley, chief executive of Athletics Ireland, who in a clearly hastily written email “sent from my iPhone”, said first of all that “Athletics Ireland wishes to announce the appointment of Teresa McDaid as manager of the Irish Cross Country team for the European Championships” and that she “takes over from Anne Keenan-Buckley, who has stood down from the role.”

Well, there are different ways for any organisation to handle an internal crisis such as this, although saying nothing about it, hoping it won’t somehow be leaked to the outside world, is probably not the brightest, if not a little idiotic.

The problem for Athletics Ireland is that this has been going on for too long, as they limp from one crisis to another, and not just in managerial areas: as if some of the selection controversies that marred the run-in to the London Olympics weren’t worrying enough, things went further downhill when Athletics Ireland high performance director Kevin Ankrom publicly questioned the preparation of certain athletes in London, including Derval O’Rourke and Paul Hession, two of our most successful athletes of the last decade.

When pressing Keenan-Buckley on what exactly she meant by being so disillusioned with the management and direction of high performance within Athletics Ireland, she paused for thought, then answered “just in general”, yet there was no denying who or what she had in mind.

“It’s nothing to do with personalities,” she added. “Just, as I say, the direction of high performance, because it should be all about the athletes.”

I’ve said before that someone like Kevin Ankrom, who Foley himself unveiled in May of last year as their own “Alex Ferguson”, be given the time, and space, to work his way into the system, and ultimately implement necessary changes: the question now is how much more time will it take, how much longer he can justify his six-figure salary, or indeed can those necessary changes ever be implemented in whatever time is left on his contract, when people like Anne Keenan-Buckley are walking away so disillusioned after a lifetime of commitment to the sport.

What is certain is that the list of casualties from this often internecine warfare within Athletics Ireland continues to grow, going back to Eamonn Coghlan’s infamously brief spell as chief executive in 1990, and more recently the premature exodus of people like Brendan Hackett, and Chris Jones, who does by the way still coach Fionnuala Britton, yet prefers to focus most of his efforts with Triathlon Ireland.

In a dream world maybe someone like Sebastian Coe could come in and help run the show, because right now the management and direction of high performance within Athletics Ireland has – in my words, not Coe’s – the smell of death about it.

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