There’s nothing much glowing about a report card which puts eighth best as the crowning achievement – then lists off a series of underperformances and disappointments. Irish athletics has endured leaner years, although not for some time.
Besides Rob Heffernan’s eighth-place finish in the 50km walk, the London World Championships were worryingly devoid of cheer; even accounting for the unfortunate illness of Thomas Barr, Brian Gregan was the only top-20 finisher on the track– 19th overall in the 400m.
Barr ended up ranked 24th in the 400m hurdles, Mark English 34th in the 800m, Ciara Mageean 34th in the 1,500m, and Síofra Cléirigh Büttner 40th in the 800m.
More worrying is that London likely marked Heffernan’s exit off the major championship stage, with little sign of any Irish athlete stepping up to his lofty heights anytime soon, not just in the race walks.
Indeed the actual highpoint of the year might well be Gina Akpe-Moses winning the European Junior 100m title in July – at least for the encouragement that gives to the future. At age 18, she’s still in the junior ranks in 2018, the World Junior Championships offering her the next chance to shine, only on a much bigger stage.
For Irish athletics though the challenge of impacting on that global stage has rarely looked greater. At age 39, by no means ancient by race walking standards, and the only Irish athlete to compete in five consecutive Olympic Games, Heffernan has likely realised eighth best in London is now as good as it gets. Even with the European Championships in Berlin next summer, it was likely his swansong.
Still there is hope and reason to believe that Barr can regain the sort of form which saw him finish fourth in the Olympics just 12 months earlier, and that Mageean too will go into 2018 determined to reprise some of her 2016 form which got her onto the European medal podium. A change of scene and coach certainly suggests Mageean means business and the Commonwealth Games in Australia in April will be the first test of that.
Others such as English and Gregan can also take encouragement from the fact the European stage is a lot more manageable. English won bronze in the 800m in 2014 and it shouldn’t take much to regain that form, Gregan also progressing as a potential finalist. That’s presuming things can only improve on 2017.