Irish youngsters come on in laps and bounds

 

SPORT REVIEW 2011:What seemed like an unpromising year for Irish athletics delivered cross country gold, some brilliant underage performances and fresh hope for London 2012

FOR A while there it seemed the headline act of the athletics year might actually have come at the tail end of last year, which obviously wouldn’t have made for a particularly memorable 2011.

When in December 2010 the Irish men’s under-23 team won gold at the European Cross Country Championships, some of us went a little giddy with excitement, thinking the sport was on a roll, and then everything went a little quiet.

In the end, as if on cue, up stepped Fionnuala Britton, who earlier this month won Ireland’s second ever individual European Cross Country title – and with that rarely has any athletics year looked so perfectly bookended.

What happened in the 12 months in between didn’t exactly inspire any similarly prized headlines, although that’s not saying there wasn’t some further demonstration of both immediate and lasting potential, even at the front of the world stage.

Two Irish finalists at the World Championships in Daegu – Ciarán Ó Lionaird in the 1,500 metres and Deirdre Ryan in the high jump – gave us something to sing about and possibly surpassed expectations. The only big disappointment out east was Derval O’Rourke, limping out injured just when another final place beckoned in the 100 metres hurdles.

There was some unexpected consistency during the year too when, starting in March, Irish qualifiers for next summer’s London Olympics began registering with somewhat surprising ease. These now number 12 and, suitably enough, are evenly split, six men and six women. Among them are Ó Lionaird, Ryan and O’Rourke, plus Paul Hession, Olive Loughnane, and two marathon specialists, Mark Kenneally and Linda Byrne.

There is the promise of several more – presumably David Gillick in the 400 metres, possibly Jason Smyth in the 100 metres, hopefully a women’s 4x400 metre relay team, and probably a full quota of men’s 50km walkers.

Britton also got London qualification out of the way, in the 3,000 metres steeplechase, although her focus for 2012 will now switch to the classic long distances, the 5,000 and 10,000 metres – and that really is where her track potential lies. Like most Irish athletes Britton must also decide how to juggle the London Olympics with the European Championships, now moved to every two years, and taking place in Helsinki in June. Britton can very possibly medal in the European 5,000 metres and use that as a springboard to the 10,000 metres in London, and that wouldn’t make for a bad year.

Plenty of other sports will always giddily celebrate their success in Europe, so why not athletics? What Britton’s victory in Slovenia proved more than anything is that talent combined with persistency and hard work is still the best recipe for success.

Ever since winning silver in the under-23 race in 2006 Britton was labelled as the “next Catherina McKiernan”, although Britton herself cringed at the comparison. This wasn’t just her natural shyness but also her unwillingness to be compared with any athlete who had won so much, when she had won so little. Anyway, in actually succeeding McKiernan as Ireland’s next European Cross Country champion, the label will now stick forever.

Away from the main stage our underage athletes had lots to write home about, the standout performance being Kate Veale winning Ireland’s first ever gold medal at the World Youth Championships in Lille in July.

At just 17, Veale delivered a commanding performance in the 5km walk, and this trend continued throughout the summer as Ireland won 10 medals in total, between the European Youth Olympics, the European under-23 and junior championships, and the World Youths.

Even Alistair Cragg made small headlines in the end, running an excellent 13:03.53 for 5,000 metres in Brussels to break Mark Carroll’s 13-year-old record. Incredibly, that brought to 60 the number of new Irish records set during 2011, including 10 youth, 21 junior, nine under-23 and 19 senior.

The talent and work ethic are there, but the big challenge now is maintaining that work up to and through London 2012. The Olympics will always throw up some surprises, for better or for worse, and for a reminder of that just ask the biggest headline act in the sport. Will even Usain Bolt be taking anything for granted come the Sunday night of August 5th?