Finding the right path after the Olympic tempest


ATHLETICS:ONLY 1,434 more days until Rio, and another 10 more days until the release of Tempest: it doesn’t matter whether the earth is flat or round, because time is not always linear, it is relative – and possibly explains why the next Olympics actually seem a lot closer right now than the first listen to Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album.

Indeed Einstein always said time is an illusion, albeit a persistent one – and you don’t need to be Einstein to understand that time slows down near big objects. If the London Olympics were the biggest single moment in the lives of all those athletes who took part, only they can understand how in the sudden and empty aftermath time has stood still, maybe even taken on a new dimension.

Dylan describes Tempest as a record where “anything goes, and you just gotta believe it will make sense” – and he could well be talking about the tempest that follows the Olympics, where the only meaning of life is life itself. No wonder, after so many Irish athletes spoke of their lives being on total hold in the months before London, and how many of them had nothing whatsoever planned or in place for post 12/8/12 – no races, no job, no money, and in some cases, no place to live or sleep.

The Paralympics are providing a nice reminder of the Utopian world that exists when sporting events have the ability to suspend time, and they must be a reminder too that for many of the Irish athletes that competed in the London Olympics, their time has come and gone – their faces and names now masked and anonymous. A lot of athletes I know are closet philosophers, or at least think too much. They’re often heard talking about learning from experience, and sometimes it’s not enough to know the meaning of things; sometimes we have to know what things don’t mean as well, and it’s only when time starts all over again that we can understand what the world is really like.

Rob Heffernan, Derval O’Rourke, Deirdre Ryan, Paul Hession, Joanne Cuddihy, Olive Loughnane: these are just some of the athletes that had every hour of every day planned out well in advance of London, and had nothing definite planned for afterwards. It’s as if their lives after that point were left completely unresolved, another reflection of exactly how consuming the so-called Olympic cycle can become.

So, instead of it being all about the here and now, it’s all about the there and then – and there are different ways of cashing in on that guilt. It’s the difference between ignoring a problem and embracing it, and while for years some Irish athletes inevitably ran into problems after the Olympics, the Irish Institute of Sport are now embracing them through their perfectly-timely Athlete Performance Transition Programme.

It might sound a little flippant, even theoretical, but the Athlete Performance Transition Programme may well prove the most critical role of the Institute of Sport, which despite some lingering reservations, has filled some critical roles already.

It’s no coincidence that Gary Keegan, the former performance director the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, is now leading the Institute team, and with that recognised the need for post-Games support. Keegan saw exactly how some athletes struggled post-Beijing, four years ago, none more than some of the boxers he helped guide towards Olympic medals. Seven months after winning silver in Beijing, Kenny Egan went AWOL – later admitting that drink had driven his boxing career down the drain, and only thanks to family and friends was he able to save it.

Then a little over a year after winning bronze in Beijing, Darren Sutherland was found dead in his apartment in London, his Olympic success, and the pressure to build on that professionally, could have played a part in him taking his own life.

Marathon runner Martin Fagan found the pressure and expectation of post-Beijing almost as hard to handle, and ended up ruining his athletics career by taking drugs. There are several other less obvious cases: high jumper Adrian O’Dwyer, lost in the vacuum of post-Athens, sprint hurdler Peter Coghlan, left touching the void of post-Sydney. Pick a number, take a seat – who’s next in line? What happens after the Olympics is never precise, always open to interpretation, and that’s part of the danger in itself.

Would you reach out to a drowning man, for fear he pulled you in, too? When you’re skin and bone, like many of our Olympic athletes are, it’s harder to throw your weight around – and that’s where the Athlete Performance Transition Programme comes in. All the Irish athletes that competed in London, plus those who narrowly missed out, have been invited to attend a series of weekly workshops, which began last Tuesday with some basic Olympic “reflections” – before moving on to more specific advice on personal planning, performance transition, and life skills development.

Egan is one of three former Olympians participating in the programme, and so too is three-time Olympic rower Gearóid Towey, and six-time Paralympics competitor Patrice Dockery. Both Egan and Towey certainly speak from experience, and while Egan admits he learned the hard way how to find his path again after Beijing, Towey believes athletes can actually suffer a sort of identity crisis in the weeks and months after the Olympics, describing it “almost like a death”, and says he knows too how athletes won’t easily ask for help, but do need to be given it.

Among those reflecting last Tuesday was swimmer Barry Murphy, race walkers Colin Griffin and Laura Reynolds, boxer Darren O’Neill, and sailor Scott Flanagan. It’s probably harder for boxers and swimmers and sailors to move on, set fresh goals, while for Irish athletes, despite the near complete anonymity of London, there is always a clear and present future, the European Indoors in Gothenburg next March, the World Championships in Moscow next August, so that even objects like Rio appear closer in the rear-view mirror than they seem.

What Irish athletics does need right now, no less than the athletes themselves, is a time-out of sorts, a brief calm amid the tempest, before time starts all over again. Whatever high performance plan was put in place for London quite obviously and quite thoroughly failed to deliver, not just in terms of a single track finalists, but the proper support and backing of athletes when they might well have been at their most vulnerable, if they aren’t already at that point now.

The choice now is to kill more time or pay the price, and perhaps that’s open to interpretation too – but can the sport afford to make the right call? The Irish Institute of Sport is showing the way forward for athletes across all sports, that time waits for no one, and that even with 1,434 more days until Rio, every second counts.

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