Hope floats cautiously as expectations are trimmed back

 

WATER SPORTS: OLYMPICS 2012:A BLEND of pragmatism and cutting cloth to suit their needs was the theme running through yesterday’s briefing in Dublin from four Olympic Sports.

Canoeing, sailing, rowing and swimming, under the umbrella of “water sports”, set out their stalls heading towards a variety of World Championships this year and the Olympic Games next summer in London.

The mood was one of measured optimism and with few wild assertions that Ireland would labour under the weight of Olympic medals. Just getting to compete in the Games seems so last Olympiad.

Rowing declared no Olympians from Beijing would be returning and as a result a young, inexperienced team will struggle to qualify. “We fell off a cliff after Beijing,” said performance director Martin McElroy.

Rowing’s position is that they are rebuilding up from underage athletes and would be satisfied to qualify one boat for the Games, a women’s lightweight double sculls. The storied Olympic careers of Neville Maxwell, Sam Lynch, Derek Holland and Tony O’Connor are a colourful past.

Sailing also focused on three categories of boat, reflecting both a tightening of budgets and the realistic ability of available athletes. At hand was Peter O’Leary, the embodiment of what can be achieved as a world-class sailor and winner already this year at the World Cup event in Weymouth.

More strident than the other sports, sailing is determined to “stand on the podium in the 2012 Olympics”. Nailing their colours to the mast, so to speak, seemed more an aspiration than an expectation as the sport also narrows its energy and focus on three boats, The Star Class, the 49er and the Laser Radial. The Perth World Championships later this year will determine 75 per cent of Olympic qualification, making 2011 almost as intense as next year.

As James O’Callaghan of the Irish Sailing Association pointed out: “In the Star class 16 boats qualify for the Olympics and one place is already taken by the host country. Over 40 countries would want a place on the starting line.”

But these days there is little griping in the smaller sports. Tearing out hair and bleating about the unfairness of it all has been replaced by a steely get-on-with-it attitude, largely built around individual talent and a blinkered determination.

Swimming, under the detailed eye of performance director, Peter Banks, is also under no illusions and even with the biggest talent to emerge for some years in Gráinne Murphy, Banks is governed by the realities. An Irishman who left for the US, made it big there with three-times Olympic gold medallist Brooke Bennett, returned and has dispensed with the B standards, so often the source of foment in previous Olympic qualification issues.

“We haven’t accepted B standards this year for the World Championships because we made A standard for the Olympics and we want to keep on that path,” said Banks.

Swim Ireland, which now seems to have a trimmer and better prepared – if smaller – group of swimmers, plans to have six athletes in London compared to the three who travelled to Beijing in 2008. Last year’s European long course championships saw seven swimmers qualified with one podium finish (Murphy), three in the top eight and three in the top 16.

“We are in the right place and going in the right direction,” declared Banks. Qualification times must be met between March 1st this year and March 21st 2012. “We’ll be very close to semi-final swims and maybe some final swims,” he added. “We are competing in a pool of 900 swimmers in over 13 individual events.”

Swim Ireland presented a list of 10 swimmers to watch. Four probably won’t make London.

In Canoe Slalom, Eoin Rheinisch presented a picture of a shoulder joint similar to his own in which a tendon has been severed. Last year was surgery and this year it’s rehab and qualification. It’s an athlete’s lot. He has two chances to qualify for London, the World Championships in September 2011 and the European Championships next year. There are 21 places available. That shouldn’t faze him. Never heard of him? He was fourth in Beijing, in Olympic Games land perhaps the worst place to be. But that glimpse of the podium has pushed the 31-year-old towards 2012.

In minor sports that’s all they need. Just 443 days to go.

SETTING TARGETS FOR LONDON

Swimming:‘A’ standard only accepted; Qualifying March 1st 2011-March 31st 2012; 900 swimmers in London 2012; 13 individual events, three relays. Hopes – six swimmers to qualify for London.

Rowing:Olympic Events: 14 (men – 9; women – 6); Qualification places – men 353, women 197; Quota per country – men 28, women 20. Hopes – one boat to qualify in women lightweight double sculls.

Sailing:Olympic Events: 10 boats. Ireland campaigning in six but actively support three boats. 49er (20 qualify), Star (16 qualify) and Laser Radial (39 qualify). Hopes – podium finish for one of the boats.

Canoe Slalom: Olympic Event: canoe slalom, canoe sprint; Slalom 21 places available; Qualification World Championships 2011, European Championships 2012. Hopes – podium finish.