Ciara Mageean: ‘Professional’ athlete rejects description as amateur

Stockholm Diamond League proves her track speed not down to racing spikes alone

Ciara Mageean chooses her words carefully, then describes "amateur" as a poor choice of words. It's hard enough to make it in this sport, she says, without being considered as such by your own federation.

It's not unusual for Mageean to stand up or speak out on the sometimes touchy subjects of her sport, and this was no exception: after running two Irish records in two successive races, her below-par run at the Stockholm Diamond League on Sunday certainly proved to her that fast times on the track this season can't be explained by improved racing spike technology alone.

Sunday's race also meant she missed the National Championships at Santry, a decision agreed with Athletics Ireland several weeks back, given the absence of a major championship this year (ie the Tokyo Olympics), plus the fact she's based in Manchester, had raced in France the weekend before, and wasn't in a position to self-isolate for the required 14 days even if she did want to return to run.

“No, I never planned on racing,” she says, “just because I had the opportunity to get into some of the really fast races in Europe, and also I’d have to be in the nation for two weeks, on the island of Ireland, and that wasn’t something that would be viable either.”

It should have been viable for European 800m medal winners Mark English and Nadia Power, who didn't get to run as Athletics Ireland denied their entry, after they raced in Italy and Finland respectively, despite these being "green list" countries and therefore didn't require the 14 days of self-isolation on their return.

Professional and dedicated

Other sports are using the Government guidelines around green list countries (Dundalk FC, for example, playing their Champions League qualifying game in Hungary midweek, thereby free to play again by the FAI last weekend), although Hamish Adams, chief executive of Athletics Ireland, was adamant Irish athletes be treated differently: "I don't think you can compare the professional teams to our amateur teams," said Adams, such as "the League of Ireland and the rugby teams", who he said were also operating in a bubble and having regular testing every week.

Power's coach, Enda Fitzpatrick, who described her as "the most professional and dedicated athlete I know", added that she too had taken a Covid test, paid for out of her own pocket, prior to taking her appeal to Athletics Ireland, which was still turned down. English, who is still hopeful of racing 800m next weekend, submitted his appeal to Athletics Ireland on Tuesday night.

For Mageean, who hasn’t been home to see her family in Portaferry since February because of the restrictions around Covid-19, there is no distinction between the amateur or professional approach of most Irish athletes.

“I am really disappointed for the athletes who hoped to be racing at Nationals, and couldn’t. I can’t speculate as to Hamish’s use of the word amateur, but I think it was a poor choice of word. I’m a professional athlete, and I suppose the use of the word amateur varies, because I can only assume he meant the vast majority of athletes that compete at the national championships are amateur in the sense they aren’t paid to do their sport, but I can definitely assure you that all the athletes that tie the line there are not amateur in their approach to our sport.

“I’m in a very fortunate position that financially my sport is supporting me, and I don’t have to go and work to be able to compete and to feed myself. There’s many an athlete that will be win a National Championship and have a full-time job, and continue to pursue their sport with a passion, and I tip my hat to them, because that is no easy feat. We’re not in a fortunate position that many athletes are paid to do their sport, but they do so at a very professional level, and without funding, and without money behind them.”

Shoe contract

Indeed Mageean is one of the handful of Irish athletes with a shoe contract, her sponsors New Balance, like Nike and other rivals, this summer introducing new track spikes with a carbon-fibre plate inserted into the midsole, now cleared for competition by World Athletics, as long as midsole height doesn't exceed 25mm.

Mageean was wearing the new spikes when she became the first Irish woman to run sub-two minutes for 800m last month, clocking 1:59.69 in Bern, before improving Sonia O'Sullivan's 1,000m record by three seconds with her 2:31.06 in Monaco; she was also wearing them when clocking in 4:10.99, back in 12th place, in Stockholm on Sunday.

“I personally feel my performances were down to my own physical improvements, as opposed to the spikes. And I think it showed on Sunday that having carbon fibre spikes on your feet doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to run fast! I think it has less of a pivotal impact on the track as it’s having on the road, in say the marathon. It’s definitely going to be a conversation that continues in our sport, and it’s an exciting one to be happening.”

Mageean has three more races lined up, in Ostrava, Rome and Berlin, still hopeful of breaking the four-minute barrier for 1,500m before the season is out: “I’ve always believed I could compete with the best, and those first two races definitely showed that, more tangible proof that I can be up there. I was bitterly disappointed after Sunday, but that four-minute barrier is coming closer and closer, and I definitely believe now that I can run under four, and keep a little eye on Sonia’s record too.”

Ciara Mageean was speaking at the launch “Girls Play Too – Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen” which is exclusively on sale in Lidl until September 6th

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics