When the going gets tough, athletes get going


ATHLETICS:IN THESE times of great economic crisis, there’s always The New Yorker. This literally colossus of a magazine, which has somehow managed to remain a weekly publication since February 17th, 1925, can still be relied upon for some rational perspective and sophisticated humour on all things even mildly associated with political and popular culture.

The covers alone are sometimes worth the subscription price (still a bargain, despite the weakening euro), and the first issue of 2009 was typically bang-on. It showed a down-and-out in biblical dress outside a fancy designer store, carrying a placard that read “The End Is Near Sale”.

Most of the economic commentaries in The New Yorker lately made for scary reading, but they never leave you with the total doomsday scenario. It’s as if the magazine realises no matter how bad things get, things can always get worse – or as Bob Dylan said, when you think you lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more.

Athletes have always realised this, albeit in a slightly different context. This national anxiety over security of savings and of career and of economic status – things we have apparently taken for granted – is something any dedicated athlete would laugh at, given security is the first thing they surrender when pursuing a career of sporting excellence.

Ever notice how so many athletes end every second sentence with a choice of two words – either “fingers crossed” or “touch wood”? That’s because they know they’re always a hamstring injury away from oblivion, an Achilles strain away from ruin. No one ever gave them any guarantees or security with their choice of career.

Two years ago Derval O’Rourke’s future looked pretty secure, and she may have even thought it was. She was the unanimous choice for The Irish Times-sponsored Sportswoman of the Year award, and deservedly so. Gold medal at the World Indoors, silver medal at the Europeans outdoors, O’Rourke was one of the best sprint hurdlers around in 2006. The sports editor still hasn’t forgiven her for not showing up to collect that award, but the reality is O’Rourke was away training in an effort to secure her future. If any athlete sits back and thinks they’ve got it made then they’re bound to fall.

Two years on, and O’Rourke was again a notable absentee from yesterday’s awards, only this time for different reasons. She wasn’t even nominated for a monthly award, and nor was she in 2007, and in athletics terms that translates as being redundant for the past two years.

The reality was she had a horrible run of injuries. But if O’Rourke thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did: Spar recently told her that they won’t be renewing their sponsorship for 2009. The downturn in the economy, and all that.

David Gillick is in much the same boat. After defending his European Indoor 400-metre title in 2007, his future looked pretty secure, but the proverbial stinker at the Beijing Olympics set him back to square one. He, too, has lost his sponsorship from Spar and any feeling of security he earned himself in recent years has also gone out the window.

So what are O’Rourke and Gillick doing? Getting on with it, of course, training away as usual, and if neither of them make any sort of positive impact on the European Indoors in Turin in just over a month’s time, then something serious has gone wrong.

Criticism passes, but talent remains, to paraphrase Paul Cezanne, and in times of trouble and woe, athletic or otherwise, it’s important to remain rational, and maybe even see some humour in it.

Keith Kelly is definitely taking this approach. Kelly’s athletic talent has been frequently championed here and elsewhere, and after announcing himself the most talented junior in Ireland, he won the American collegiate cross country title back in 2000 – one of the hardest races to win, anywhere – and right there his potential was without limits.

Then it all went frustratingly wrong, as one injury after another kept pace with one comeback after another. Two and a half years ago Kelly took the rational decision to start a career, realising athletics wasn’t going to pay his bills, and took a job as a specialist running representative with Reebok, still one of the best-known brands in the business.

Kelly liked the work, and was good at it. He was based in Providence, Rhode Island, where he went to college, and it kept him involved in the running scene. When in recent months he put his latest injury behind him and started training consistently again his future, too, looked pretty secure.

Then last week Reebok announced there were letting go all their specialist representatives, with immediate effect. The downturn in the economy, and all that. So Kelly was out of work, without any security. Just like old times, really. He’s been writing about this on his internet blog, Kelrock, which is well worth checking out. (It’s titled “Fitter, Happier, More Productive”, a nod to his devotion to Radiohead, and you’ll find it at http://kelrock.blogspot.com/).

In ways Kelly’s writing would fit nicely into The New Yorker, given his rational perspective and humour. “Reebok has been my life for over 2.5 years and I loved it,” he says. “Naturally it had its tough times but I believe in the brand and the guys I worked with were the best. They will always be friends, and some will be very close friends for life.

“So now I am unemployed and very confused. Today I woke up as a Reebok rep ready for the good fight and tonight I go to bed as Kelrock, looking for a job.”

A few days later, having enjoyed one of his best training sessions of the New Year, he writes: “It was just what I needed and I felt amazing. I can’t express how much I love running and how helpful running is during times of trouble.”

Always looking forward, always thinking things will get better, has always been part of the athlete’s spirit.

Mary Peters always realised this, and as the first Lifetime Achievement recipient at yesterday’s Sportswoman awards, is a timely reminder of how sporting careers usually run in a parallel universe to security. Competing at the height of the Troubles, she trained day-after-day in Buster McShane’s Belfast gym, protected by massive segment fortifications to keep out the bombers. She’d finished fourth in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, and then ninth four years later in Mexico City.

When Peters went to the 1972 Olympics in Munich she was considered past it, too old at age 33. If she’d been worried about security in her life at that point she would have given up long ago. Instead, she secured her place in Olympic and sporting history. And that’s still what drives every athlete.