Words of JFK remembered as Ireland look to avoid the drop

Eleven of the second strongest and deeply traditional athletic nations in Europe coming to Morton Stadium

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 06:00

Something is dangerously wrong when the most important track and field competition ever staged in this country is being treated with such dissidence. Is the forecast that bad? Have they sprayed anthrax around the Morton Stadium? Why the morbid predictions of miserable failure?

“Give me one good reason for going to Santry next weekend,” my accountant asked, on Thursday night, puffing heavily on a cigarette outside the Roundwood Inn. And he calls himself an athletics man. True, the European Team Championships is not an easy sell – and indeed easily confused with some of its previous incarnations, such as the Europa Cup, or the old Bruno Zauli Trophy, named after the man who dreamed it all up in 1965. But nothing drives the fear into sport than the grief and pain and public humiliation of being relegated on home territory, and that’s the prospect facing 50 of our finest athletes next Saturday and Sunday. It will, believe me, be a very thin line between survival and disaster.

So, although sorely tempted to stay away myself, this is exactly what JFK asked of us 50 years ago – because the whole point of the European Team Championships is athletes doing it for their country. There is no pace making, no prize money, and definitely nowhere to hide, just like Billy Morton would have planned it back in the good old days. It’s all about the honour and minor glory, or in our case, wearing the green vest and fighting off relegation.

It’s four years now since the good people at the European Athletics Federation agreed on the current format, which has worked well: central to that was the combination of men’s and women’s scores (previously separated), and with that a combined outright score to decide final rankings. All 50 European member federations get to take part, the top 12 in the sort of “Champions” League, the next best 12 in the First League, eight more in the Second League, and all the rest in the Third League.

The competition itself is beautifully simple: there are 20 events, men’s and women’s, (no walks, sadly, or marathons, or 10,000 metres) – and each event winner scores 12 points, second place 11 points, and so on down. Anyone disqualified or not finishing gets no score, jointly-placed finishers split the points, and the discus and hammer, naturally, count for exactly the same as the 100m and sprint hurdles. Three teams will be either promoted or relegated in or out of the top league, and two teams in or out of all other divisions.

“Every single half point will count,” Pierce O’Callaghan tells me, the man responsible for promoting the event – and that’s no exaggeration. “And we’ve never really had an opportunity like this before, to see all our athletes compete at home, in all events, at such a high level. From that point of view it’s the biggest track and field competition ever staged in this country.”

Therein lies the daunting challenge facing us next weekend. In that first year, 2009, Ireland secured promotion from the Third League, and has held on to Second League status ever since – although just about. Last time out, two years ago, (the European Team Championships aren’t staged in Olympic year), we just about survived, finishing 10th of the 12, in Izmir, Turkey, as Slovenia and Croatia were relegated, joining the lowly others in the Third League.

Now, coming to town next weekend are 11 of the second strongest and deeply traditional athletic nations in Europe (and in no particular order) - Belgium, Bulgaria, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, and Switzerland. None of them will be soft, and especially not in the field events, with Hungary bringing Krisztian Pars to throw the hammer, the man who won gold at the London Olympics last summer, while Estonia boast Gerd Kanter in the discus, the man who won gold in Beijing in 2008, and bronze in London last year. Finland, we all know, will win the javelin no matter who it is they bring.

The big pity for us (along with the absence, through injury, of the likes of Ciarán Ó Lionáird in the 1,500m and Deirdre Ryan in the high jump, and the fact 400m specialists David Gillick and Joanne Cuddihy are only available as “non-playing” captains) is the enduring weakness of our field events, which, in the early days of this competition, was always our big strength. Nowhere does this become more evident than at the European Team Championships.

Lots of points
It wasn’t always this way: in the early days, if Ireland didn’t collect lots of points in the field events, something was going was badly wrong. In 1977 for example, at the old Europa Cup in Copenhagen, Bernie Hartigan – although better known as an All-Ireland hurling winner with Limerick in 1973 – had strong hopes of winning the hammer.

Indeed Hartigan launched his first throw with such lethally ferocity that it cut through the hammer cage, shot directly across the infield, and crashed straight into the photo-finish equipment near the finish line. This delayed the competition for over an hour as the poor Danes assessed the damage to their precious equipment, although Hartigan – who I think still won the event – made the front pages of all the Irish newspapers the next day, complete with a picture of the photo-finish console with his hammer sticking out of it.

Ireland’s best chance of avoiding relegation will come down to what we know the likes of Derval O’Rourke, Fionnuala Britton, Brian Gregan and Jason Smyth can do for their country on the track, and the hope that the supporters of Irish athletics can do what JFK asked.

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