There is a no more moderate or precise assessment of championship performance than when the end sum of the medal hopes and expectations adds up to zero, even if one of them came tantalisingly close. Not when medals are the only currency that count and what championships are ultimately remembered for.
With just four finalists, in three events, from the largest ever Irish team of 23 athletes, the 36th edition of the European Championships in Torun, Poland certainly fell short of expectation, only didn't end without hope: not when they also caught several Irish athletes on the clear upward trajectory of their careers.
Just because they’re considered the entry-level major championships didn’t mean they were any less competitive, Torun drawing a record 733 athletes from 47 nations, 20 of which got onto the medal table topped by four Dutch gold, one silver and two bronze.
Age and experience always count in the winning of those medals, only Torun provided ample reminder that if you're good enough, you're old enough: such as Jacob Ingebrigtsen, still only 20, who, after winning the 1,500 metres gold medal on Friday, added the 3,000m gold on Sunday, effectively by turning that into another 1,500m.
After running the first half in 4:08.25, Ingebrigtsen promptly ran the second half in 3:39.95, winning in an indoor best of 7:48.20, the young Norwegian ruthlessly winding up the closing laps to bring his European medal winning tally to six; two gold outdoors, three gold and one silver indoors. And he’s still only 20.
For Sean Tobin, Ireland's fourth and last finalist of the weekend, all that proved too hot to handle and after running a lifetime best of 7:47.71 in his heat, he finished 10 seconds down on Ingebrigtsen, his 7:58:11 leaving him 11th of the 12-man final.
“Pretty rough, that was very disappointing, it feels embarrassing being honest,” was Tobin’s own brutally rough assessment. “Clearly the head wasn’t there. When I went I didn’t go and my mind was screaming at me to go... I let it go and switched off and that shouldn’t at these sort of levels.”
Indeed it shouldn't, Tobin being part of the Dublin Track Club training group which also produced 1,500m finalists Andrew Coscoran (seventh) and Paul Robinson (10th), and all have made telling progress this season. That they essentially operate outside of Athletics Ireland is telling too, a reminder that the age-old structures still need some fixing.
The only other Irish finalist was Phil Healy, who made every possible move to make a medal happen in the 400m on Saturday night, only to fall just short in a suitably thrilling race.
Healy said she'd need to run the race of her life to have any hope of winning a medal and the Cork woman ran the fastest of her life alright, improving her best to 51.94 seconds, and still ended up fourth behind a new European lead of 50.63 by Dutch gold medal winner Femke Bol.
Healy’s 51.94 would have won a medal in the previous five editions of these championships. “To be just short of a medal, and be so close, is disappointing, but it’s a European final, it’s a fourth place, it’s a PB, I can’t ask for anymore. Coming into a final is bonus territory, and I’m buzzing, to come away with that performance in that world-class field, I’m thrilled.”
There were ample other signs that European athletics gets more competitive each year, rising stars like Keely Hodgkinson, who only turned 19 last Wednesday, winning the 800m for Britain, or Poland’s Patryk Dobek giving the hosts the sole gold medal by winning the men’s 800m in a new best of 1:46.81, an entirely new event for him having previously concentrated on the 400m hurdles.
That 1:46.81 is slower than what both Mark English and 18-year-old Cian McPhillips ran two weeks before Torun, providing a gentle reminder than times or ranking means nothing in championship running.
For English, a three-time European medal winner including bronze from Glasgow two years ago, the tactic of coming from behind, which has often served him so well in the past, wasn’t quite good enough this time, as English ended up fourth in 1:48.99 in his semi-final, only the top two progressing.
For Longford Leaving-Cert student McPhillips, mixing it with some of the very big men of 800m running in his semi-final, a crazy fast race passed 400m in 50:82; undaunted, McPhillips remained composed throughout before also taking fourth in 1:48.06,
For McPhillips, making his first senior championship appearance, there was also the consolation of a new European under-20 record (not the fastest of his life, though for European Record purposes the times must be delivered where there are also anti-doping controls): “Great to get the experience, and unfortunately just not strong enough today,” he said, and there’s no doubting he is medal-winning potential in the future, the 1,500m likely his better distance anyway.
Same with Nadia Power, who also fell short of her quest to the women's 800m final, hitting the front at the bell and with that certainly imposing herself on the field, before dropping back to finish fourth 2:04.04.
Earlier on Sunday, Sarah Lavin and Ciara Neville exited at the semi-final stages in their respective 60m hurdles and 60m, but again leaving plenty of hope. Lavin took fourth in her race in 8.07, just one hundredth of a second off the personal best clocked in her heat, and ended up ninth best overall, after the eight women who made the final. Neville had two races inside two hours, and her 60m semi-final again saw her produce a time of 7.37, in the outside lane, to finish seventh, the two Limerick athletes on the clear upward trajectory of their careers.