Irish athletes look to make their mark at senior level in Prague
English is best contender for a medal at the European athletics indoor championships
Kilkenny’s Dara Kervick has a decent chance of making the final at the European indoor athletics championships in Prague next weekend. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/The Irish Times
It’s been another tough week in the mountains. That February wind chill might tickle the bones at sea level, but it rattles them at this altitude, the only bit of shelter around here coming from the few bare oak trees and the walls of Ireland’s highest pub.
Trying to heat a 200-year-old house with 13ft high ceilings is also a desperate exercise in inefficiency. The boiler blew out – again – on Tuesday, and that once great stack of my dad’s finest handcut turf is now down to a loose and lonely bundle. Thank good for the French wine sale in the supermarket.
This has nothing to do with my looking forward to next weekend’s European indoor athletics championships. It’s no warmer in Prague, although all the action is indoors, naturally, in the O2 Arena. And it doesn’t take long for indoor athletics to heat up: three days of competition – Friday to Sunday – all up close and personal, a bit like the infamous Liston Memorial Rooster Fight.
The sports editor also insisted I go. We’re only sending a modest team of 12 athletes, although with one self-proclaimed medal contender. At 21 Mark English might still be a student of 800-metre running (and student of medicine) but he’s already passed one major test with honours, and he’s definitely not going to Prague to save on his heating bill.
For seven of the 12 Irish athletes, Prague represents their first senior international competition. At 24, Dara Kervick, from Piltown in south Kilkenny is no kid, but he’s been chipping away at his 400m time over the last six years. He knocked chunks off it last weekend, running 46.53 to win the national indoors in Athlone. He has a decent chance of making the final, and after that who knows? David Gillick wasn’t the gold medal favourite in Madrid 10 years ago, but we remember what happened there.
Declan Murray also takes considerable pride in representing Ireland. He grew up playing Gaelic football, with the Detroit Wolfe Tones, where he was born and raised - his father hailing from Gorteen in Sligo, his mother from Castlemaine in Kerry. Murray later attended Loyola, the old Jesuit university on the north side of Chicago. When it came to pursuing his international running career, he was always going to be Irish-American and not American-Irish. Murray also runs the 800m and didn’t mind suggesting that he might help English make the final, if it came down to that.
There’s also an extra layer of entertainment about indoor athletics. It’s not just about avoiding the cold. Europe may be the only continent to stage an indoor championships, but this is where, and why, it all began. Long before London’s royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea was famous for its embassies and department stores, it was home to the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, a park with a circus, zoo and Ashburnham Hall. It was here, on November 7th, 1863, that the first recorded indoor athletics meeting was staged; 150 years later, it may be an easier sell than the outdoor version.
I can imagine Noel Berkeley reading all this and not being impressed. Berkeley preferred the tough slog of winter cross-country running or hammering it out on the roads. And unlike most of us from the same vintage, he hasn’t softened with age. He turned 50 a few months ago, but that hasn’t slowed him down. In fact he’ll turn the clocks back 25 years on Sunday, when he runs in the national inter-club cross country at Rostrevor, Co Down.
He’s not trying to win the thing, but just revisit the days when the national inter-club cross country was one of the biggest events on the Irish sporting calendar. He will also want to mark that occasion in 1990, when he helped Dundrum South-Dublin win their first senior team title. Berkeley was on scholarship in Oklahoma at the time but flew home for the race.
Even the junior race in Limerick in 1990 was tough beyond any current comparison. I know that because the top 10 of us hardy runners all ended up on scholarships in the US.
This has nothing to do with me looking forward to next weekend’s European indoor championships, only a reminder that winter didn’t always feel this cold.