Strong Irish performances at the European Athletics Championships in Munich this week have given a boost to the sport and highlighted the emergence of a clutch of exceptionally talented young athletes who can hold their own against the best in Europe. Ciara Mageean’s silver medal in the women’s 1500m final was fitting reward for a proven winner, while the smashing of national records by sprinters Israel Olatunde and Rhasidat Adeleke have turned them into national figures and generated real excitement about their potential on the track.
However, those performances should not obscure the long-standing structural problems that make that success the exception rather than the rule. Olatunde is a rare example of a young athlete who has reached the apex of the sport while remaining in Ireland. He has reached that level through his own talent and determination, and with the benefit of an excellent high-performance coach. More and more athletes base themselves abroad or link in with professional or semi-professional training groups throughout the year.
Serious strategic shortcomings in Irish athletics were identified in Sport Ireland’s review of last year’s Tokyo Olympics. Assessing Athletics Ireland, the report found “a lack of resource and coaching structures”, the absence of a clear “framework for athlete support” and a need for greater transparency and accountability around funding decisions. It painted a picture of a system some way short of international standards.
A fundamental problem is the lack of any real funding for coaches, reflecting an under-appreciation of their importance in athlete development. We expect part-time coaches to prepare athletes for Olympic-standard competition, then wonder every four years why medal hauls seem meagre. Against this background, it’s hard not to argue that performances such as those seen in Munich this week occur in spite of how Irish athletics is organised, not because of it. But what Munich also shows, once again, is that there is a deep well of talent there to be nurtured, and an enthusiastic public eager to celebrate their achievements.