Identifying talent key to improving Ireland’s future medal hopes

Spotting ability and encouraging athletes towards sport most suited is core to future hopes

I met Johnny Watterson for a quick Tokyo debriefing session on Thursday in the pub just around the corner from me. Every Olympic cycle begins exactly where the previous one ends, and if you're not moving forward with the wheel now in spin then you're already falling behind.

Only 1,077 days to Paris! Tokyo 2020 may go down in history as the first and ideally last five-year Olympic cycle, and Paris being 2024 means we’re already into the first ever three-year cycle. There’s no time to lose.

Watterson told me he’s already on the case of where best to locate The Irish Times accommodation in order to maximise our daily productivity. “Somewhere on the Left Bank, around Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” he reckoned. “Near the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I spent a summer there when I was 20 and can still remember it very well. Lots of nice places to relax after a hard day’s work.”

The process also begins now and likely hinges on one question: what can we improve on from Tokyo to Paris?

This is the kind of inside information which always helps with any planning process. For the Olympic Federation of Ireland, for the 19 different sports and 116 athletes that qualified for Tokyo, for anyone already harbouring ambitions for Paris, the process also begins now and likely hinges on  one question: what can we improve on from Tokyo to Paris?

There is already some debate around whether the winning of four medals – gold for rowers Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy and boxer Kellie Harrington and bronze for boxer Aidan Walsh and the women's rowing fours – counts as a successful Olympics for Team Ireland. For the largest ever Irish team, the best funded and invariably best prepared, the answer is probably no.

With a little more luck it might have been twice that, and truth is the Gracenote Virtual Medal Table, which has a good record on these matters, was predicting Ireland would win five medals in Tokyo, including two gold, one silver and two bronze, 100 days out from the start of the Games. That was actually one less than their last prediction table in January 2020.

Gracenote wasn’t far off on Irish medal numbers, although they did predict gold for rower Sanita Puspure and the Irish Showjumping Team, neither of which even made the final. Some people can’t help it if they’re lucky, only if it wasn’t for bad luck then someone like Natalya Coyle would have had no luck at all.

Most people think of two things when it comes to improving future medal hopes; funding and facilities, and not necessarily in that order. Earlier this year Sport Ireland announced a core sporting package of €40 million, much of it wrapped around Tokyo, about €10 million more than handed out in 2016, with €8.5 million going to support high-performance programmes.

Still there are some events, and particularly track and field, where even if Sport Ireland threw in another €100 million right now it wouldn’t necessarily improve the Irish medal hopes in time for Paris.

Facilities can always be improved upon, although looking back down the table of medal winners in athletics in Tokyo we’re not doing badly: all 206 competing nations were represented, by far the most global of the 28 sports at play, and of them 83 made finals and 43 won medals – the likes of Botswana, Venezuela, Granada, India and Burkina Faso among them. Even without visiting any of those particular countries my guess is their facilities are no better than ours.

The athletics events in Tokyo also produced three world records, 12 Olympic records, 28 continental records and 151 national records. The standards continue to soar and trust me they’re not all on drugs. Without a single Irish finalist in an individual event, and only the mixed 4x400m relay making it through to finish eight, the Irish medal prospects for Paris add up to zero.

There’s no fast or easy was to close this gap, although the fact Ireland couldn’t produce a single qualifier in either a men’s or women’s field event is to me evidence of talent identification gone wrong. More popularly known as Talent ID, and one of the reasons behind the British Olympic success of recent years, the aim and purpose is twofold: identify exactly what talent the individual athlete has and then drive them towards the sport most suited to that talent; then also head hunt for talent in other sports to find the sort of individual talent you are looking for in your sport.

Talent ID isn't just limited to the athlete by the way

A sort of ask not what your country can do for your sport, ask what your sport can do for your country. Or should that be the other way around?

Chris Spice, the national performance director at British Swimming, admitted last week their success in the pool in Tokyo – winning eight medals, including four gold – was mainly down to their Talent ID programme and effectively knowing in advance who was going to make it in the sport and who wasn’t.

This approach started ahead of London 2012, resulting in Helen Glover and team-mate Heather Stanning winning Britain’s first ever Olympic women’s rowing gold medal. A former PE teacher Glover, then 26, only took up the sport four years previously after being unearthed by UK Sport’s national Talent ID.

Talent ID isn’t just limited to the athlete by the way. Certain coaches and high-performance managers may well be more suitable to another sport rather than the one of their first choice, and even if not, it would be interesting to see what someone look Bernard Dunne could do for Irish athletics.

Many Irish Olympic prospects will always be lost to the three main field sports – rugby, GAA and soccer – and yet this should be the first place for Athletics Ireland to start up a new Talent ID programme ahead of Paris. Don’t tell me there isn’t a young rugby player who can’t throw a discus or shot put some considerable distance. It might be fun too to give some GAA players an Olympic trial to discover just how fast they really are.

Paris may come too soon for Talent ID to produce some fresh medal prospects on the track or field but may prove the key to any hopes that lie beyond. There’s another side to this too when you see those engines that are Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy and wonder what they might have been capable of on the track had rowing not got to them first.