Frustrated Ciarán Ó Lionáird feeling left out in cold system
“Because I want to put on the Irish vest and be the best I can. But sometimes I ask myself would I be better off running for the US”
Ciarán Ó Lionáird is out on his feet after claiming bronze in Gothenburg. Photograph: Getty
Dan Martin has no idea how strangely envious he had this place on Monday morning. It’s certainly a strange day when some people are wondering why Ireland’s first stage winner in the Tour de France since 1992 made the front page picture, and why other sporting achievements did not.
Why not the Dublin hurlers winning a first Leinster title since 1961? Why not the Irish faces behind the first Lions series win since 1997?
It also makes for the sometimes strangely envious feeling that creeps into those stuck out of the moment, for whatever reason, especially those who have tasted some sporting success of their own, and have sacrificed so much in the pursuit of it. And no one is feeling this more right now than Ciarán Ó Lionáird.
“Oh I’m finished, my season is done,” Ó Lionáird told me this week, before flying back to his US base, first to visit his girlfriend in Tallahassee, Florida, then on to Eugene, Oregon – his home away from Cork for the past two years. His story has been told many times and still the image of the rollercoaster makes it seem like too smooth a ride.
It’s almost exactly two years now since Ó Lionáird paid €5 for a train from Leuven to Oordegem, in Belgium, his base that summer, for one last race over 1,500 metres. Instead, having started the season with a best of 3:48.36, he ran 3:34.46 (a 3:51.5 mile, in old money) and with that moved himself up to fourth on the Irish all-time list, and qualified for both the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics. One small step for Irish distance running, one giant leap for the young man from Toonsbridge, outside Macroom.
But with dreams like that begin responsibility, and Ó Lionáird is the first person to admit he hasn’t always handled the responsibility very well. He backed up his 3:34.46 with a 10th place finish at those World Championships, in Daegu, and after that managed to talk his way into Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon project, based in Portland, and the chance to train alongside Mo Farah.
Then in his quest to take his running career to the next level Ó Lionáird soon overstretched it – or more specifically his left Achilles tendon, which has not been right ever since. He moved from Portland to Eugene, the London Olympics still went horrible, and in trying to explain it Ó Lionáird threw all responsibility out the window.
This is “the edge” that Hunter S Thompson loved to talk about – knowing there is no honest way to explain it, because the only people who really know where the edge is are the ones who have gone over it. Ó Lionáird has gone over the edge a few times now, but that’s not what frustrates him. This after all is the athlete who spent his first semester at Florida State University, in 2009, flat broke, sleeping on a bare mattress, three doors up from a crack house, with hookers on every street corner, and couldn’t have cared less.
Nor was the frustration Ó Lionáird spilled out to me this week about regaining the sporting “edge” that most of us talk about, either – because he’ll always have that: last March, his Achilles injury still nagging quietly at him, he went to the European Indoors, in Gothenburg, and won the bronze medal in the 3,000 metres. It was a brilliant performance, believe me, and still Ó Lionáird was disappointed because he’d run that race to win it.
Holding him back
What is frustrating Ó Lionáird more than anything is that he wants to embrace the responsibility of being one of Ireland’s few genuinely world-class distance runners right now, and still something is holding him back: it frustrates him that he feels the responsibility of making the absolute most of the €20,000 grant he gets from the Irish Sports Council, and yet some days wonders if he’d better off running for the US, even if that would mean getting no grant money at all.
So he came home at the start of last month, determined to finally sort out his Achilles injury. The problem is not your average acute tendonitis, but rather chronic tendinosis, where the tendon becomes a bit like a frayed rope, and requires slow and deliberate rehabilitation.
Five weeks later he’s just not sure if the system is as willing to embrace that responsibility as he now is, at least not when he’s ringing a journalist to vent his frustration.
“I don’t wait to snap a tendon to prove a point, or risk a career-ending injury. My shoe contract with Nike is already at risk, and I’m losing out on the chance to make some money by not racing. But I feel that being a carded athlete I should be accountable. Sport is a business, and you should want to protect your investment. This is taxpayers’ money, after all, and it shouldn’t be about handing the athlete the money and saying ‘there you go . . .’ But if this is what they mean by the system then it isn’t working.
“For instance, I’ve being five weeks trying to get to see Dr Hakan Alfredson in Sweden, the best Achilles doctor in the world, and there’s still nothing happening.
“Because I want to put on the Irish vest and be the best I can. But sometimes I ask myself would I be better off running for the US. That’s a dramatic statement, I know, and I only throw it out there because I sometimes wonder what makes me think it. Because I shouldn’t be. I take great pride in running for Ireland, and always will, but I want to represent it as best I can, and right now I feel I can’t do that, and it’s become beyond frustrating, really.”