Ireland ill-equipped to prey on Europe's poor track record

 

Budapest made ready yesterday to host its second big international sporting event in the space of 48 hours. Formula one's racing engines, in full throttle for the Hungarian Grand Prix last weekend, will be replaced by the pitter-patter of feet on the athletics track today.

The grand prix stimulated greater local interest than the athletics seems to be, but that illustrates yet again the decline of the European Championships, an event which has been losing status steadily over the last 20 years.

Europe has surrendered its reputation as a power base of the sport in the aftermath of the explosion of athletics in Africa. The consequences of that will be everywhere in evidence here over the next six days.

Athletes who filled mere bit parts in the World Championships at Athens last summer are now rated as potential champions in Budapest.

British athletes are a case in point. After their failure to provide even one champion in Athens, the speculation among British journalists is that their athletes will be in serious contention for as many as 10 titles.

Time may prove that they are guilty of misplaced optimism. Yet there is genuine reason for belief that Colin Jackson and Steve Backley will complete a hat-trick of wins in the 110 metres hurdles and javelin events respectively and that Mark Richardson, Iwan Thomas and Solomon Wariso will complete a clean sweep of the medals in the 400 metres.

Darren Campbell, a protege of Linford Christie, has some hope of emulating his tutor by winning the 100 metres, Douglas Walker tops the summer ratings in the 200 metres and despite the menacing presence of Denis Kapustin (Russia) and Charles Friedek (Germany), Jonathan Edwards is the favourite for the triple jump. Add in the two men's relays and those bold predictions may not, after all, prove wildly optimistic. Russia, inevitably, will claim a number of the new champions. Even in the absence of Sergey Bubka, their men's team is impressively strong with Rusian Maschenko (400m hurdles), Sergey Kliugin (high jump), Kiril Sosunov (long jump) and Andrey Plotnikov (50km walk) all holding credible chances of joining the new list of champions.

Germany, Italy and France, traditional power bases of the sport, will also be well represented and in the context of emerging forces, the hopes of Spain also bear close scrutiny. Hand in hand with the massive expenditure incurred in presenting the 1992 Barcelona Olympics went a significant investment in their coaching structures.

It yielded handsome dividends when Fermin Cacho swept down the finishing straight to win the 1,500 metres. Now the depth of their strength in the blue riband event is such that Cacho is back in third place in the 1998 European rankings, behind compatriots Reyes Estevez and Andres Diaz.

The Spaniards could also dominate the marathon in which only the German, Stephen Freigang, separates Jose Manuel Garcia, Diego Garcia and Alejandro Gomez in the top four places in the current ranking list.

By contrast, Ireland's medal prospects are no more than tenuous. With 25 athletes assembled in Hungary, this is quite the biggest squad ever to represent the country at a major championships. That, in itself, is testimony to the progress achieved in recent years.

However, the stark reality is that, with the exception of Sonia O'Sullivan and Susan Smith, the squad's ambition is likely to be pitched at finishing in the top eight in their respective events.

O'Sullivan is ranked fourth in the 5,000 metres and of those ahead of her only Spain's Marta Dominguez will run at the distance here. Significantly, however, that list does not include the championship favourite Gabriela Szabo, who has alternated between the 1,500 and 3,000 metres in the early part of the season.

On the face of it, those figures give the Irish woman genuine hope of a place on the presentation podium, but it has to be set against the disquieting fact that she has won only two of her 10 track races this season. And both of those victories were recorded on home territory.

In short, it has been another bewildering summer for O'Sullivan, a time in which she has struggled to find any real consistency, even on those occasions in which she held all the advantages in experience over her rivals.

Her programme is complicated further now by her decision to take on the 10,000 metres for the first time tomorrow evening. Experience teaches that she is not the most resilient in terms of recovery and a bad experience at the longer distance would scarcely augur well for her hopes in the 5,000.

Smith's best 1998 figures of 54.31 seconds, recorded at Zurich last Wednesday, place her fourth in the ratings behind Tatyana Tereshchuk (Ukraine), Ionela Tirlea (Romania) and Judit Szekeres (Hungary). Given that Szekeres's time was recorded last season and that she has done little of note recently, the Waterford athlete is quietly confident of getting into the top three.

Elsewhere, the performance of talented Larne newcomer James McIlroy will be monitored closely in the 800 metres and the improving standard of Irish sprinting will focus attention on Gary Ryan and Paul Brizzel in the 200 metres.

In another era, their hopes of survival would have been slim. Now, in the current deflated state of the sport in Europe, even the most forlorn causes merit at least some consideration.

In its time, the Nepstadion, where the programme commences at 10 o'clock this morning, has housed some marvellous events. However, the evidence of a relatively mundane season to date scarcely suggests that the drama about to unfold will captivate the watching world in similar manner.