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Malachy Clerkin: Irish athletics has hit new heights, but let’s not lose the run of ourselves

Amid all the excitement of the coming months it’s important not to overburden our best athletes with incessant medal chat

Ciara Mageean celebrates winning the Women's 1500m title on a memorable night at the Stadio Olympico, Rome. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

We sat on the balcony of our rented apartment in Rome and we split the bottle of beer left in the fridge by the landlord. It was well past midnight now and our nine-year-old was in her bed, exhausted from our night at the Stadio Olimpico. We filled two tumblers and raised them to Ciara Mageean. The cicadas applauded from the trees all around.

There is nothing like a night at the athletics. Our seats last Sunday were in the Curva Sud, right at the bottom of the stadium beyond the finish line. We saw Rhasidat Adeleke and Sharlene Mawdsley qualify for the 400m final. We saw Sophie Becker and Chris O’Donnell just miss out. We saw the women’s high jump final directly down in front of us, where Ukraine’s Yaroslava Mahuchikh cleared 2.01m to beat Angelina Topić of Serbia.

And we saw Ciara Mageean. Glorious, eternal Ciara Mageean, nesting on the shoulders of the two British runners for 3½ laps, waiting with a level of certainty and confidence that we had no access to up in Row 19d. When she found that gap and elbowed her way through, we danced like lunatics as she bounded towards us. Then we bolted down to the front and waved her off on her lap of honour.

The pure simplicity of track and field is its greatest selling point. Little kids, big kids – we’re all the same, really. We don’t need to know about the offside rule or hands in the ruck or the difference between a birdie and a bogey. All we need is the uncomplicated urge to shout “G’wan!”, willing someone to go faster or higher or further.


And so a week like this ripples out. An Irish team performing on a European stage night after night, sucking in more and more of the country as they go. You’d forgive the rowing fraternity for being slightly bemused by it all. There they are, consistently bringing home World Championship and European medals without anything like the same fuss being made. There’s something about success in athletics that just hits different.

If events in Rome did nothing else, they set the table for Paris. We are six weeks out from the Olympics. More pointedly, we are six weeks out from possibly the most successful Irish Olympics in history. We haven’t won an athletics medal since Rob Heffernan’s 2012 fourth got upgraded to bronze because of a doping Russian. We haven’t seen one on the track since Sonia O’Sullivan in Sydney in 2000. Last week is going to ratchet everything up a notch.

We probably need to walk easy a bit. In the middle of it all during the week, a post on Twitter/X from three-time Olympian Natalya Coyle was a small voice in the whirlwind.

“A serious evening ahead,” she wrote on Monday in the run-up to Adeleke’s individual final. “Regardless of what happens I think it’s worth pointing out that the pressure we as a nation are putting on medals here is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Keyboard warriors remember athletes are humans with feelings.”

Sophie Becker, Rhasidat Adeleke, Phil Healy, Sharlene Mawdsley and Lauren Cadden celebrate with their Women’s 4x400m silver medals in Rome. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Coyle is one of the great Irish Olympians. She competed in the Modern Pentathlon in London, Rio and Tokyo. She took a sport that nobody beyond a tiny circle of enthusiasts in Ireland had ever given a second thought to and got herself to a world class level.

Ninth in 2012, sixth in 2016 and bang there in medal contention after the first two events in 2021. And then a horse she had only met for the first time an hour previously decided he didn’t fancy it and her Olympic career was over. She finished 24th, a nasty libel of a result.

She knows whereof she tweets, in other words. The next few weeks will contain the highest level of competition Irish Olympians and Paralympians will face in their lifetimes. Most of them are completely anonymous right now and will be again by September.

But for a time in July and August, they will have a spotlight on them like no other in Irish sport. The accumulated weight of that is more than enough without the rest of us chanting medals at them every time they turn around.

We don’t need to look too far afield to get a sense of how damaging it can be to make medals the be-all and end-all of the Olympics. The cautionary tale of Team GB’s medal factories over the past few Olympiads is all too real. Even just this week, Rebecca Downie, the 32-year-old gymnast heading to her third Olympics, was in the press over there talking about being unable to set foot in Lilleshall, the national training centre for British Gymnastics.

“I’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder around it,” she told the Daily Mail. “They said the symptoms are very similar to PTSD, that Lilleshall was a really triggering place for me. So I have been allowed to do my whole prep from my home gym and to not step anywhere near Lilleshall, which I’m really grateful for.”

What a horrifying place for sport to get to. There aren’t enough medals in the world to offset an athlete going to her third Olympics getting PTSD when she thinks of the place and the organisation that prepared her for her first two. No way is the juice worth the squeeze there.

Ireland’s Rhasidat Adeleke celebrates with her silver medal following the 400m final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Nobody’s saying winning doesn’t matter, or that medals aren’t important, or that taking part is the only thing we should be focusing on. This is elite sport and everything is on the line. But when we jack up the medal chat to being the sole prism through which we judge these people, we do them a huge disservice.

Don’t take this column’s word for it. For a stark insight into this whole area, people should listen to the Medals & Mics podcast between now and Paris. A three-way conversation between Heffernan, Derval O’Rourke and David Gillick, it is raw, funny and often brutal about the realities of what it takes to live out your dreams.

Derval tells a story about the flight landing home from Athens and Cian O’Connor being pushed to the top of the plane once they hit the tarmac in Dublin and everyone else being ushered back. It stuck with her so vividly that when she was on the way home from Beijing four years later, she bailed out in Germany.

“This is how bad that impacted me,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t cope. I actually can’t cope. If I stay on until Dublin and they do the roll-call when we land and I get sent down the back after being world champion two years before, I can’t do it. My reserves are so low. My emotional capacity to deal with this is so low. So I got off in Frankfurt or wherever it was and texted a friend I had there and said I’ll see you in a bar at six o’clock.”

Gillick and Heffernan had their own versions of the same story, all of them boiling down to the same thing. Medals. If it’s the only thing we value, there’s a price to be paid along the way.

Amid all the excitement of the coming months, it’s something we should all keep in mind.