Because I was born into this sport there are some things always known to me as gospel according to the truth. Like what is seen and believed to be the single most important platform and pathway for any young Irish athlete seeking to attain some higher level of success on the track or field – especially when it comes to the Olympics.
As a matter of fact I can tell you with absolute certainty where any such athlete was first witnessed by me in person. Beginning with say Sonia O’Sullivan, Catherina McKiernan, Mark Carroll and David Matthews, continuing with Rob Heffernan, Derval O’Rourke, Fionnuala Britton and David Gillick, right up to Thomas Barr, Ciara Mageean, Mark English and Phil Healy.
This place now surely obvious being the Irish Schools Athletics Championships, the pure thrill of which returns to Tullamore all day Saturday after a two-year absence no thanks to Covid-19. Non-stop from nine in the morning until 6.30 in the evening, 122 events in total, 50-50 boys and girls, across four age groups and all utterly and naturally inclusive.
So much of Irish athletics history can be traced back to this day of lasting impact and influence, shared among a great many and for the longest time. Since 1916, to be exact, when on the evening of Monday, April 3rd in Wynne’s Hotel in Dublin inspired men like HM Finlay agreed to stage the first Irish Schools Athletics Championships.
Finlay, then honorary secretary of the old Irish Amateur Athletic Association, recognised the need to inspire a new generation of athletes, in part because of the fall-off in affiliated clubs after so many young Irish men went off to fight in first World War. His motion, unlike many in Irish athletics at the time, was passed unanimously.
The championships were only twice interrupted in the past; in 1937, when staged only at provincial level, and for six years during the second World War. From the beginning, too, this event became the inspiration if not incentive for Irish track and field Olympians – a trickle at first, now a vital and steady flow.
Soon moved from Lansdowne Road to the bigger stage of Croke Park, among the earliest champions were Limerick-born Denis John Cussen, attending Blackrock College in Dublin, who won a senior sprint hurdles title in 1917, and the high jump in 1918. Ten years later Cussen ran the 200m for the new Irish Free State at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, during which time he also won 15 international rugby caps for Ireland, scoring five tries.
Cussen later set up a medical practice in London and served as British Olympic team doctor in Melbourne in 1956, one of the first people to congratulate Ronnie Delany after his victory in the 1,500 metres.
Delany was Irish Schools champion too, winning the senior boys 800m in 1952, representing CUS in Dublin, and again in 1953 (only not before his brother Joe, who won the senior boys 400m in 1950). Just three years later Delany won his Olympic gold medal, and for many Irish athletes since any connection with or on to the Olympic stage began at the Irish Schools Athletics Championships.
Some years were more productive than others – in 1971, Eamonn Coghlan won the senior 1,500m, Mick O’Shea won the intermediate, and John Treacy won silver in the junior. Nine years later all three ran in the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
In the same year as Delany’s feat in Melbourne in 1956, Tom O’Riordan won what was then the senior boys mile, in his Leaving Cert year at Tralee CBS, and to this day he is convinced that’s what set him on the road via Idaho State University to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Later in his reporting years he’d often bring me along for the day to help collate results and make sure we’d at least spell all the winning surnames correctly, which trust me wasn’t always a successful enterprise.
My own taste of the championships in 1989 proved something of a vintage year as among the winners were five future Irish Olympians, one of whom got far the better of me, the classy Niall Bruton winning the senior boys 1,500 metres seven years before running the same event in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
From that same class of 1989, hammer champion Roman Linscheid went on to Atlanta, as did 5,000m champion Cormac Finnerty, sprint hurdles champion Susan Smith going on to Atlanta and Sydney 2000. Just three years’ later shot put champion Victor Costello made it to the Barcelona Olympics, and he also played some rugby too you know.
Through the years qualifying for the Schools Championships has been an achievement in itself: with regional and then four provincial championships, where only the top three in each event progress to the national stage, it’s a process sometimes equalled in ruthlessness by only the US Olympic Trials.
It wasn’t until 1970 before any girls events were added, and 1984 before Patricia Walsh and Caroline O’Shea became the first champions to later make the Olympics, O’Sullivan and McKiernan first joining that list in 1992.
At last year’s delayed Tokyo Olympics, 18 of the Irish athletes who qualified were previously Irish Schools champions in their event, bringing the overall tally of that feeder of sorts to 91 in all. Among them was Sarah Healy, who won the senior 3,000m at the last edition of these championships in 2019, with another record to boot. This week, Healy broke one of the last Irish underage records belonging to O’Sullivan, running 4:02.86 for 1,500m in Ostrava.
Another of the standout Schools champions from 2019 was Rhasidat Adeleke of Presentation Terenure, who won a brilliant sprint double at intermediate level, winning the 100m in 11.69. Adeleke was sadly denied the chance to win another double at senior level in 2020, her Leaving Cert year, and sadder still denied the chance to further connect with that Olympic experience in Tokyo.
Now in her second year at the University of Texas, Adeleke early last summer clocked a 50.96-second split in the 4x400m relay, faster than any of the three Irish women selected ahead of her for the mixed 4x400m relay in Tokyo. Adeleke appealed that selection, still Athletics Ireland said no.
Sonia O’Sullivan said at the time it will be looked back upon as one of the worst decisions ever made by Athletics Ireland. In her first individual 400m this summer, Adeleke clocked 50.70, taking down another Irish senior record which had stood to Joanne Cuddihy for 15 years.
Next weekend she will compete in three events at the NCAA championships in Oregon, including both relays, and is also qualified for the World Championships back in Oregon in July.
Everything about this trajectory suggests Adeleke will make the Paris Olympics in 2024, increasing that list of once Irish Schools champions, yet the Tokyo experience would have strengthened her platform and pathway to success, and that’s the truth.