‘A total disgrace,’ says Kiernan of RTÉ’s lack of coverage of athletics in Doha
'And a lot of saintly people in athletics and football allowed themselves to be bribed'
Jerry Kiernan: “I won’t be worried about the hierarchy in Doha, who believe they can buy everything that moves.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The plan all week was to write something vaguely political about the World Athletics Championships starting in Doha, Qatar, next Friday. So I rang Jerry Kiernan to get his thoughts, and maybe even a decent intro.
“A total disgrace,” he said bluntly, cutting straight to the chase as usual, even if he was initially talking about the lack of any planned coverage on RTÉ and not just the choice of host nation. That was just for starters, and Kiernan has clearly lost none of his unconditional love for the track or the field.
It could be argued that every sporting event is only as good or welcomed as its host nation, and if the last World Championships in London two years ago felt like a sort of homecoming, Doha has never felt quite right.
Not yet anyway – and not just because of the searing hot temperatures (the marathons, for example, starting at midnight to offer some relief).
Doha was awarded these championships back in 2014, ahead of Barcelona and Eugene,US, (who did get the 2021 championships) under then IAAF president Lamine Diack. He is a Senegalese businessman who has since been ordered to stand trial on charges of corruption and money laundering following a four-year investigation in France into doping cover-ups, extortion and bribe-taking in world athletics.
For Kiernan there does come a point when the host nation becomes separated from the event, for better or for worse, and on that note he thinks very differently.
“I actually cannot wait for Doha,” he said. “I met a friend in a coffee shop recently in Ranelagh, and told him ‘one week to go’. And he knew I wasn’t talking about the Rugby World Cup, or the Champions League. He knew I was talking about the World Athletics Championships.
“Now, RTÉ not showing them at least gives me the opportunity to view these things without having to sound clever. And putting the location aside, the World Athletics Championships still have widespread appeal. You only have to look at the participation. The Olympics are still nothing without athletics, the audience is still there, and most people would rate athletics as one of their favourite sports.
“I was just watching the two teams that opened the Rugby World Cup, Japan and Russia. And, I mean, there must be only 20 people who play rugby in Russia. Look at the world rankings. Italy are ranked higher in rugby than soccer. I spend a lot of time in Italy, and rugby a is non-sport in Italy, and yet they’re ranked 14th in the world.
“You have other powerhouses in there, such as Samoa or Tonga, and there are more people living in Cork city than there are in Tonga.
And yet you can’t turn on the telly without seeing an ad for the Rugby World Cup when most people don’t give a shit. The World Athletics Championships is a proper world event, and that’s why they should be shown.”
Nothing sounds sillier
Now, nothing sounds sillier in sport than people going around saying mine is bigger than yours. And I’m not talking about in the dressing room. Plenty of other sporting events have been arguing their size against the Rugby World Cup, only there’s no denying the significance of Japan for the countries with a chance of winning it, or even making the semi-finals, even if they are a relative minority.
Only five countries have contested the eight finals since 1987, only four have won them, and the number of countries to have contested the semi-finals is still a relatively elite eight (no reminder required of one of the countries yet to get that far).
Still, it’s all relative. The staging of the 17th World Athletics Championships has attracted 1,928 entries from 209 countries, comprising 1,039 men and 889 women across 50 different events. Of the 44 individual winners from two years ago in London, 38 will defend their titles in Doha over the 10 days.
The TV rights sold to over 200 countries, which does make RTÉ’s absence seem a little strange.
Doha will also begin in the face of some expected protests over Qatar’s illegal status for homosexuality, plus new research by Amnesty International published this week claiming hundreds of migrant workers in Qatar are going unpaid despite the country’s repeated promises to improve workers’ rights ahead of the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
Another part of the concern is that these 1,928 athletes in Doha may not even be the best qualified.
Mark English has missed out on a spot in the 800m under the new quota qualifying system, his 1:45.94 just shy of the automatic 1:45:80. He was ranked 41st of the 48 entries, only for eight places to go to countries permitted to send one athlete without any standard (Oman, UAE, East Timor, Myanmar, Kosovo, Jordan, Equatorial Guinea and Andorra)
It means the Irish team will consist of just seven athletes: Phil Healy (200m) and Michelle Finn (3,000m steeplechase) qualified under the event quotas, with Thomas Barr (400m hurdles), Ciara Mageean (1,500m), Alex Wright (20k walk) Brendan Boyce (50km walk) and Stephen Scullion (marathon) all qualifying on time.
Kiernan’s predictions on that front are equally blunt.
“We won’t have anything really to shout about, and it doesn’t help when they’re bringing in a bunch of countries like East Timor, and I could probably run faster than them at this stage. So I can understand why Mark might have a gripe. But there is something there for next year for him, definitely, and now is the time to start preparing.
“I also agree the idea of giving anything to Doha, or anything sporting to the Arabian peninsula, should never happen for a multiplicity of reasons. They should never get anything.
“There’s no question they bought these championships. The same way they bought the World Cup for 2022. And a lot of saintly people in athletics and football allowed themselves to be bribed.”
He continued: “But they are there, and I think there will be some incredible races. I think we will celebrate all that is best about the sport.
“I won’t be worried about the hierarchy in Doha, who believe they can buy everything that moves.
“I also know athletics and cycling have always had a credibility issue, but the same should go for every other sport, golf or tennis or whatever. Athletics and cycling are making some effort to go out and catch people. The other sports don’t bother their arse.”