Ó Lionáird can bounce back from Istanbul blues


ATHLETICS:While Derval O’Rourke’s gamble of going to the World Indoor Championships has paid off, Ciarán Ó Lionáird has suffered a blow to his confidence, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

SO STAYING at home really has become the new going out, not just when it comes to the old boozer. It’s a lot cheaper, for sure, the service often as good, and if anything does go horribly wrong you’re not crawling back to the Sports Editor trying to explain yourself.

Sometimes you don’t even have the choice, or at least feel the need to gamble: actually there wasn’t any debate in here about going out to Istanbul this weekend, even with two “medal contenders” among our small trio of Irish athletes, plus the promise of the best kebab outside of Zaytoon.

They say the only secret in gambling is knowing when to quit, preferably while ahead, and that’s usually the case with the World Indoor Championships: they often look like an attractive bet – especially when some of the big-event favourites are nowhere near Turkey this weekend – and it’s not like the indoors ultimately matter, particularly not in Olympic year. We also have that old reliable alibi of No Proper Indoor Running Track.

Whatever about the rest of us, Derval O’Rourke and Ciarán Ó Lionáird took a bit of a gamble going out to Istanbul this weekend, albeit for slightly different reasons – and it was a bit of a gamble too for David Gillick and Deirdre Ryan to stay at home. For O’Rourke and Ó Lionáird there was possibly more to lose than to gain, and for Ó Lionáird, it must feel like he’s suddenly lost his winning hand.

In the 10 years since O’Rourke made her first international appearance, the indoor season has proved an indispensible springboard to the outdoors – and never more impressively than in 2006, when she went to the World Indoors in Moscow, won the 60 metres hurdles, then came out later that summer and won the silver medal at the European championships in Gothenburg. O’Rourke probably ended that year as the best women’s sprint hurdler in the world, although some of RTÉ’s sporting pundits famously disagreed.

She didn’t run well indoors in 2007 and again in 2008, and the less said about those outdoor seasons the better: but indoor success in 2009 (a European Indoor bronze) paved the way for a successful outdoor comeback at the World Championships in Berlin, and that trend has more or less continued since. O’Rourke needs to be in Istanbul, even if the safer bet might have been to stay at home – especially given the foot injury that last month cut short her racing schedule.

In making this afternoon’s semi-finals that gamble has already paid off: the 8.19 seconds she ran in her heat was some ways off her best of 7.84, but at least she proved herself competitive – comfortably progressing as the first of the four fastest losers, and equal eighth fastest overall. That gives her decent odds of making the final this evening, and no one needs any reminding of what O’Rourke is capable off once the medals are on the line.

That’s not really the important thing: Istanbul has already given her a nice little reminder that at age 30 she’s not far off the so-called leaders, only one of whom, Sally Pearson, actually broke eight seconds in the heats – although that might be partly explained by the strange echoes coming from the starter’s gun. So much for going on the B of the Bang! Anyway, no matter what happens later this afternoon O’Rourke can come away from Istanbul counting down the 139 days to the London Olympics with no less enthusiasm than she would have had going out there.

So what happened to Ó Lionáird? He definitely can’t blame the starter’s gun for effectively finishing last in his 1,500m heat – his time of 3:50.12 one of the slowest times he’s run since his schoolboy days in Macroom. Indeed because I’m not in Istanbul myself I don’t know who he’s blaming, although it’s surely only himself, and the complete breakdown in focus and race execution he so effectively demonstrated at the World Championships last August.

What is certain is that just three hours before his race Ó Lionáird was about one croissant away from having two croissants too many: I know that because he said it himself on that minefield of information also known as Twitter. Why Ó Lionáird was concerned about his pre-race meal is not the problem (although it was hardly the breakfast of champions); the problem is why he was felt the need to share such information at all.

Every athlete of his generation is engulfed in the social network, and for Ó Lionáird that’s all part of the package. If anything he’s embraced the extra attention that his 3:34.46 last summer has brought, telling anyone who would listen since that he was now ready to take the next step, onto the medal podium, and possibly even in London: “Because I had no expectations that took the limits off as well. I was able to go for anything,” was how he described his carefree summer of 2011, perhaps without realising the pressure he was putting on himself.

When Ó Lionáird ran a 3:54.76 mile last month his indoor ambitions shot up too, so that now, suddenly, he’s found himself a victim of his own expectations. The reality is he’s still a relative rookie on the world distance running stage, and at age 23, he still has a lot to learn. By joining the Nike Oregon Project and training with the likes of Mo Farah he’s also added the extra layers of professionalism that also brings fresh demands, mentally as much as physically.

One of his old Cork colleagues has expressed some concern about Ó Lionáird’s apparent change in attitude since joining the Nike group, particularly in recent weeks, and that he might have lost of the free spirit that helped get him to where he is – and earned him the nickname “Mad Len” in the process.

Plenty of Irish athletes have gambled in the past on the World Indoors, with mixed fortunes. Only four Irish athletes entered the inaugural championships, in Indianapolis, in 1987, including standout 1,500m favourite Eamonn Coghlan: he was tripped in his heat, failed to qualify, leaving Marcus O’Sullivan to win gold, while Frank O’Mara and Paul Donovan won gold and silver in the 3,000m.

Ten years later Sonia O’Sullivan entered the World Indoors in Paris, her first indoor appearance in five years, and should have won gold in the 3,000m, only for Gabriela Szabo to gamble on the inside lane, and snatch the victory.

Indoor running can be notoriously unpredictable and sometimes it’s best to tear up the losing docket and move on.

In some ways what happened in Istanbul is the classic come-down, wake-up call, or reality check – whatever way it’s worded – and if Ó Lionáird can learn from it then he can only bounce back a stronger runner. When all form suddenly deserts an athlete like that then the explanation is usually in the head, and while the competition won’t be getting any easier between now and London, perhaps some of the expectations have been lifted, and the gamble of going out to Istanbul can still pay off, if only in the long term.