Athletics: Weight to throw around? Think about going for Rio

Surely we can find one propping machine who might fancy their Olympic chances

Eileen O’Keeffe competing in the hammer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Eileen O’Keeffe competing in the hammer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Anyone reading Gavin Cummiskey in our Six Nations magazine this week must have been moved by the weight of his words. “This is rugby,” he solemnly declared, “so size will always matter.”

He was writing about strength and conditioning and the type of player being commissioned by Joe Schmidt in the continuous beefing up of the Irish squad’s profile, as if there is any sport left these days where size doesn’t matter.

And not just in the case of the 117kg propping machine that is Cian Healy. Or the 100kg inside centre that is Robbie Henshaw. Find me any elite athlete, man or woman, beef cake or rice cake, where the bathroom scales isn’t as important as talent or hard work or the so-called 10,000 hours of practice.

Distance runners have always known this, boxers, cyclists and jockeys too. And now so do those whose main purpose on the field of play is to simply throw their weight around. Indeed it appears we are going to see a lot more of that over the course of this Six Nations, especially after reading about Uini Atonio, the latest recruit to the French squad.

Largest ever

The 146kg body mass of Atonio (or 23 stone, on the old bathroom scales), makes him the weightiest French representative in Six Nations history. So much so that that the New Zealander, of Samoan origin, playing in his newly adopted country since 2011, has also required the largest ever French rugby jersey – size XXXXXXXXXL, according to standard measurements.

We may not have the gene pool to produce our own Atonio, but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying. What is certain is that even with all this weight being thrown around, not all of it can find its way onto the Irish squad. For every Devin Toner that makes it, there must at least another dozen who don’t, which is a scary proposition, for a variety of reasons.

Although this doesn’t necessarily have to make for such terrible waste of weight. Cummiskey finishes up with a reference to Victor Costello – “one of the rare naturally huge specimens produced by Ireland” – who by cosmic coincidence was also the last Irish international rugby player to also throw his weight around the shot put circle. Amazingly, Costello also remains the one and only Irishman to have competed in both the Olympics and the Six Nations.

Costello actually spent more of his youth in the throwing circle than he did on the rugby pitch, winning his first Irish senior shot put title at age 16 in 1987, and adding another four senior titles up to 1991.

In the summer of 1992 he threw a personal best of 19.93 metres, the second furthest shot put in Irish athletics history and good enough to qualify for the Barcelona Olympics.

There, Costello finished 11th in his qualifying group, and at age 21 he still had plenty of room for improvement.

Instead, turned off by the “loneliness of life as a shot-putter”, he concentrated solely on his rugby, making his senior international debut for Ireland in 1996, against the USA. He retired 10 years later, with 39 Ireland caps (scoring four tries), not forgetting his 126 appearances for Leinster, and further spells at Connacht and London Irish.

It’s an impressive sporting CV by any standards – but also raises the question: where is the next Victor Costello? One of the arguments surrounding Ireland’s Olympic participation these days is that we don’t have the gene pool to produce an Usain Bolt or a Mo Farah on the track, and that we’d be better off trying to throw our weight around the field. Given the way our rugby squad is going, that argument makes even more sense.

Propping machine

Surely we can find one propping machine or even inside centre who might fancy their chances of making next year’s Rio Olympics, not just in the shot put, but also the discus, the hammer or even the javelin. There is an additional skill component to each of these events which does require considerable practice, but essentially they’re all about throwing your weight around.

Ireland didn’t qualify any throwers for the London Olympics, and while Eileen O’Keeffe threw the hammer in Beijing in 2008, the Irish men’s throwing records are positively archaic.

Paul Quirke’s shot put record has stood since 1992; Nicky Sweeney’s discus record has stood since 1998; Terry McHugh’s javelin record has stood since 2000; and Declan Hegarty’s hammer record has stood since 1985 – making for a combined 85 years.

Opportunities Of course there are similar opportunities for Irish women’s rugby players, too, where size also matters as much.

England’s World Cup and seven-time Grand Slam winner Maggie Alphonsi has just put down the oval ball and taken up the shot put with the aim of making the British team for the Rio Olympics – and she’s not very heavy at all. At 70kg, Alphonsi is no Valerie Adams, New Zealand’s two-time Olympic shot put champion who weighs in at 120kg, although it will be interesting to see what sort of challenge she presents in Rio, if she does make it.

So while size will always matter in rugby, any player moved by the weight of all of this, particularly those with significant weight to throw around, still have time to answer Ireland’s call for Rio.

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