Macker's memoirs bold and brilliant

 

ATHLETICS: After an amazing year, David Gillick is likely to walk away empty handed from tonight's national awards; testimony to a remarkable year for the sport

THOSE OF us still clinging to this absurdly playful world of sportswriting could easily spend every evening between now and Christmas attending either a book launch, awards presentation, or indeed both. That’s before we move on to the various staff parties. It can be a vicious circuit, or worse, a vicious cycle – even if the continuous feeding of red wine and vol-au-vents saves us considerably on the weekly shop.

Which reminds me: We were always told in journalism school that books are never “launched”. Spaceships are launched. Lifeboats are launched. Books are either sold, or else given away – and most of the time it turns out to be the former. That’s not saying they can’t be highly entertaining occasions, as Maurice McMahon’s book sale on Thursday evening proved. To anyone who attended St Benildus College in Kilmacud, “Macker” needs no introduction. To anyone else, here’s a man of considerable talent; teacher, runner, cyclist, historian, raconteur and, incidentally, son of Kerry literary legend Bryan McMahon.

To me Maurice McMahon was firstly the man who fired the gun at the De La Salle cross country championships, always staged in Benildus, as if commanding the Olympic 100 metres. It was foot behind the line, and no arguing. Somehow, he generated desperate tension, which helped explain why one year, running for nearby De La Salle Churchtown, I finished 156th out of 160. Secondly, Maurice is the man who hands us the match programmes on the big days in Croke Park, always with a trusty prediction, or, if the Dublin footballers are involved, a warning of imminent collapse.

His book, Mr Mac; A Blackboard Memoir, may well be the first of its kind. He articulates what countless other teachers of his generation must wish they could articulate, if only they had the nerve. It’s bold, but brilliant, and while he’s careful not to identify his former pupils, sometimes he does – like the Olympic runner Jerry Kiernan, who he taught in the early days, back in Listowel, or another Olympian, David Gillick.

“Students referred to me as the cross country teacher,” he writes. “The title, half-deserved, contained a grain of truth more than outsiders fully appreciated . . . ” (An angry Kerry teacher, in other words.) Kiernan was there on Thursday evening, and had nothing but kind thoughts about his former mentor. Gillick wasn’t there but then he’s more concerned with the other end of the circuit these days, including this evening’s presentation of the third annual National Athletics Awards, which take place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry. This promises to be another heavy night.

In almost any other year, Gillick would be guaranteed to walk away with at least one award. Despite the deep disappointment at last year’s Beijing Olympics, and the rough surrendering of his European Indoor title in Turin in March, Gillick came out this summer and made Irish athletics history on several counts: He became the first Irishman to break the 45-second barrier for 400 metres, running a brilliant 44.77 seconds in Madrid on July 4th; he repeatedly mixed it with the world’s best in Golden League meetings; then, in the athletics cauldron that was Berlin, he became the first Irishman to make the World Championship 400 metres final, finishing a tremendous sixth, and best European.

With that Gillick has now single-handedly taken Irish 400-metre running into truly world-class territory. His 44.77 was only bettered by five athletes in the world this year. All this in an event white guys from south Dublin aren’t exactly born to master.

Gillick’s only worry going along to this evening’s National Athletics Awards is that 2009 turned out to be quite an extraordinary year for the sport. Truth is it may well be one of the most successful years in Irish athletics history, despite the ugly in-house bickering which developed within a small section of Athletics Ireland at the start of it. It was an amazing year, and as a result, Gillick is likely to walk away empty-handed.

He’s one of four nominations for track athlete of the year, along with Mary Cullen, Paul Hession and Derval O’Rourke. Cullen had a good season too, albeit a short one, finishing fourth in the European cross country, winning the bronze medal over 3,000 metres at the European Indoors, before being sidelined with injury. Hession didn’t do too badly either, narrowly missing a place in the World Championship 200 metres final, and ending up ranked fourth best in Europe.

Yet barring a hideous upset, O’Rourke has to get the track athlete of 2009. Last year, she was considered by many as done, washed-up, finished – and anyone who said otherwise was probably lying. Instead, she came to the European Indoors in Turin in March and proved them wrong by winning the bronze medal in the 60 metres hurdles with a season’s best of 7.97 seconds. That night bronze felt every bit as good as gold. Having hit rock bottom the previous year, it was quite a comeback.

Expectations were not high going to the World Championships in Berlin, but she not only made the final, but in finishing fourth, out of lane one, improved her national record from 12.72 to 12.67, the fastest European all year, and coming within half a foot of the bronze medal, O’Rourke unquestionably produced the track performance of 2009.

I emphasise track performance, however, because both Gillick and O’Rourke will inevitably be trumped for the overall athletic performance of the year by Olive Loughnane. This is voted on by members of the athletics media, and while I’m not privy to the result, there was nothing this year to beat her silver medal at the World Championships, no matter what the event. Loughnane came to Berlin quietly confident, having finished a fantastic seventh in the 20km walk at the Beijing Olympics, but the way she executed her race in Berlin, finishing at the famous Brandenburg Gate just behind Russia’s Olga Kaniskina, and ahead of China’s Hong Liu, was an astonishing display of athletic courage and determination, earning only the fifth ever medal Ireland has won at the Worlds.

Loughnane will obviously collect the race walker of the year too, one of this evening’s 14 award categories in total. Same as Ciara Mageean will obviously collect the junior athlete of the year, and Kelly Proper the field athlete of the year. But can Loughnane make it a treble by walking away with the big one – the 2009 athlete of the year? This is what makes the awards circuit so entertaining, as opinions will often differ.

(Copies of Mr Mac can be sourced through mrmacbenildus@gmail.com )