Modest Britton will find it hard to run away and hide now


ON ATHLETICS:‘It used to be I ran to get where I was going. I never thought it would take me anywhere.”

Forrest Gump said that, and it’s true, sometimes, if you really feel that way. It’s why Bob Dylan is still singing songs and Keith Richards is still playing guitar, because if it was about the praise and recognition and the tired old accolades they would have given up a long time ago.

“What drives me to you is what drives me insane,” Dylan sings, in Isis, and that’s true too, of many things – including, it seems, where running has now taken Fionnuala Britton. I can’t remember a more spontaneously golden moment in Irish athletics, at least not in recent years, than witnessing Britton defend her European Cross Country title in Budapest last Sunday, and with that leading the Irish women to team gold medals.

To hear Amhrán na bhFiann played twice, in quick succession, in the freezing Hungarian air, instantly wiped all the failures and bickering and bloody politics that up to then had defined the year. Athletics Ireland sure has an uncanny knack of digging itself out of black holes and plastering over some gaping cracks, although we’ll leave that at that, for now.

Because Britton deserves all the wholesome praise and recognition she gets – the only problem with that being she’d much rather run away and hide. Her modesty is perfectly reflective of Catherina McKiernan, who won the inaugural European Cross Country in 1994, and shared an innate aversion to the back-slapping acclaim and overload of plaudits that typically comes with such sporting glory.

John Treacy also preferred a long, hot bath the night he defended his World Cross Country title in Limerick, in 1979 to the eulogising and toasting that was going on down in the bar of the Irish team hotel, although Treacy did later get drunk on half a bottle of beer.

So it was no surprise whatsoever to hear Britton was in bed before midnight last Sunday, up early the next morning for a photo shoot, a run, then a bus tour of Budapest, before returning home with her successful team mates that evening. She made no secret either of the blessing to have those team-mates to share the spotlight of the welcoming celebration at Dublin airport, indeed an embarrassing enough moment at the best of times.

Some athletes love to lick up this sort of praise, love being under that spotlight, Usain Bolt being an obvious example, but Britton is definitely not one of them. She gives the distinct impression she’d gladly run without any honour or prize, just to get where she’s going, in terms of her own personal goals and satisfaction – although that’s not saying Britton doesn’t have a ruthless competitive streak to try and be the best there is.

There are plenty of people sharing in the success, too, particularly her coach, Chris Jones.

General Lee defined audacity as being able to take more chances, and take them quicker than anyone else, and together Britton and Jones did exactly that, executing brilliant race tactics, and had the nerve to alter them, too, having viewed up close the icy, undulating course presented to them in Budapest last weekend.

Luckily for Britton, Jones doesn’t seek out the spotlight either, also knows the difference between the reward and the award, and that true vindication comes from within, and certainly not under the firing squad of end-of-year sporting awards currently underway.

RTÉ managed to get Britton onto their shortlist of 10 nominations for Sports Person of the Year, to be presented next Sunday week, alongside the likes of Katie Taylor, Rory McIlroy, and Henry Shefflin, although no prizes for guessing who’s going to win that.

It won’t bother Britton in the slightest either that RTÉ couldn’t fit her into The Late, Late Show schedule last night.

Indeed what matters for Britton is the same as what matters for Taylor, and it seems the rest of the Irish boxers.

Billy Walsh summed it up perfectly on Wednesday afternoon, when accepting the Philips Sports Manager of the Year award, jointly presented to himself and Taylor’s father and manager, Pete Taylor. “You come to these awards at the end of the year,” said Walsh, “you don’t work for these awards.”

Katie Taylor is also the favourite to win The Irish Times Sports Woman of the Year, which is being presented next Thursday lunchtime, in Dublin. Britton is nominated, as one of the monthly award winners, from last December, when she won her first European Cross Country, but even if she’d won again last Sunday running on one leg, with hand tied behind her back, there is simply no contesting Taylor’s scale of achievement.

Or is there? There was a small contingent of Irish supporters who celebrated long and hard into the Budapest night last Sunday, and by the end of it, rated Britton’s performance as good as anything they’d seen in 2012, including in London’s ExCel Arena last August, as sacrilegious as that might sound to some. McIlroy, by the way, was strongly argued for too.

Ayn Rand would have loved this sort of debate, trying to weigh up such objectivity against such subjectivity, and we’ll see the very best of it tomorrow evening, when they try to decide the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, judging the likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis against the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Andy Murray, and indeed McIlroy.

For what it’s worth, the award here goes to the one who used to run to get where he was going, and never thought it would take him anywhere.

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