Younger generation of Irish athletes ready to seize the day in European competition

Athletics Column: Ian O’Riordan

Brian Gregan: competes in the World University Games in Kazan, Russia this weekend.

Brian Gregan: competes in the World University Games in Kazan, Russia this weekend.


Sleeping out by the lake on Thursday night, next to the old boathouse and the sheltering Japanese Umbrella-pine, gently illuminated by the stars above and flickering candlelight, provided the essential setting to finish off Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

This was not some midsummer night’s dream. Certain books should only be read within the environment that created them, and Henry David Thoreau’s beautifully transcendental tale is no exception. It was also 168 years, to the day, since Thoreau left his parents’ home in Massachusetts and built himself a small cabin beside Walden Pond, where he immediately declared and celebrated his own independence, and spent the next two years and two months learning to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”, and not, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”.

It’s also one of those books that inspired every generation that followed, from Leo Tolstoy to Christopher McCandless, and several commercial spin-offs too, including the Dead Poets Society. Thoreau mightn’t have liked that film, but would have related to the circumstance, and particularly the Neil Perry character, and his tragic quest to avoid a life of quiet desperation.

No future
The film’s catchphrase – carpe diem – is also perfectly in line with Thoreau’s thinking. Although what Horace originally meant by “seize the day” in his poem Odes is sometimes confused by the line that followed – quam minimum credula postero – or “trusting as little as possible in the next”. The day is there to be seized not because there is no future, or no point in trying to make the future better, but because there is no certainty in the next day, that sometimes the future just can’t be trusted, and nowhere is this more relevant than in the life of the young athlete.

It feels even more relevant now, because never before has this country been blossoming with so much exciting young athletic talent, across so many events.

Don’t just talk my word for it. Starting tomorrow in Kazan, Russia, then in Donetsk, Ukraine, then in Tampere, Finland, then in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and finally in Rieti, Italy, Ireland will be represented by 66 athletes in all five of the youth, underage and student championships being staged this month, and if they don’t come home with a small bagful of medals then something will have gone wrong.

There are some people who still buy into the fraudulent and shameful claim that only Olympic medals count for anything these days, and good luck to them, but for the 66 athletes selected to represent Ireland this month, this is the time to carpe diem. Many of them, though still so young, have already come a considerable distance, and no matter what the future actually holds they all deserve to be celebrated for the individual discipline and elevation of life that Thoreau so rightly admired.

Brian Gregan is among the first out of the blocks in Kazan this weekend, at the World University Games. At age 22, Gregan might well have exceeded expectations so far. The 45.53 seconds he ran for 400 metres last month now ranks him the second fastest Irishman ever, behind David Gillick’s 44.77.

Gregan is exuberant about winning a medal, and indeed it’s an important part of his development that he does.

The team of nine Irish athletes in Kazan also includes Laura Reynolds in the 20km walk, and 3,000m steeplechasers Tomas Cotter and Michelle Finn. Cotter has been perfecting the trade out in Wichita State, and Finn at Western Kentucky, and they should ultimately prove there is still plenty of value in the old American scholarship route.

Then comes Donetsk, from next Wednesday, and the IAAF World Youth Championships, which must be the most competitive competition for any young athlete, aged 17 or under, of any sport. Former winners here include Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, Sally Pearson and Yelena Isinbayeva and for the eight young Irish athletes selected the experience should prove invaluable. Zak Irwin from Sligo has the future of Irish sprinting written all over him, although winning medals here is not the priority (Mo Farah, remember, only managed sixth, back in 1999).

For some of the 15 Irish athletes headed to Tampere, next Thursday, for the European Under-23 Championships, winning medals is the absolute priority. Mark English (800m), Paul Robinson (1,500m) and Thomas Barr (400m hurdles) have all l the credentials already to do so. Barr’s 50 seconds flat at the Cork City Sports last Tuesday night was bursting with class, even if he did hit the last hurdle.

Sporting festival
There is no expectation on any of the 16 Irish athletes at the European Youth Olympics, which start in Utrecht on Sunday week, , although for young distant runner Siobhra O’Flaherty from Carlow the future is only beginning.

It’s only starting too for the 18 athletes selected for the European Junior Championships, in Rieti, on July 18th – although for sprint hurdler Sarah Lavin, Carlow sprinter Marcus Lawlor, Dundrum’s prodigious talent Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner, and four equals in Karl Griffin, Sean Tobin, Shane Fitzsimons, and Ruairi Finnegan, this might well be their time already, the “urgent insurgent now”, as DH Lawrence called it.

Yet they and all the rest should remember that the more literal translation of carpe diem is not “seize the day” but “enjoy the day”, the same essential fact of life that Thoreau trumpeted .

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