Olympic qualifying standards means it’s going to be a rocky road to Rio

Athletes face uphill task with many events demanding better times than Irish record

Gore Vidal said us newspaper reporters should only be concerned about the present, not the future. And now more than ever that rings true. If anything our future is already in the past.

Because just when it seemed our meek and lowly profession couldn’t sink much lower, we’ve now been voted the number one worst job of 2015. According to US job search site careercast.com – and based on attributes such as “income, outlook, environmental factors, stress, and physical demands” – the newspaper reporter is the number one worst gig out there, ahead of the more favourable positions such as the enlisted military personnel (3), the corrections officer (7) and the fire fighter (9).

Media position

The best job of 2015, by the way, is in actuary, and there’s not a single media position anywhere near the top of that well-to-do list. Whatever about athletes only being as good as their last race, it seems most of us are now only as good as our last article (and might this be it?). So it feels positively presumptuous to be reporting about anything beyond 2015 – or, in the case, next year’s Rio Olympics. Only 475 days to go?

That countdown may be live and ticking, although rarely has the relative closeness of the next Olympics actually felt more distant.


So distant

Perhaps it’s because Rio itself still feels so distant and so new (the first Olympics to be awarded to South America etc) and also because last summer’s World Cup in Brazil is still fresh in the memory.

Yet there was one timely reminder of that countdown this week when the IAAF, at their 2015 council meeting in Beijing, agreed the athletics qualifying standards for Rio. Like the first call to the starting blocks, this finally heralded some nervous anticipation. Suddenly, it feels like every single one of those 475 days will count for any Irish athlete hoping to make the opening ceremony inside the Maracanã Stadium on Friday, August 5th, 2016.

The good news is that there won’t be any old-fashioned arguments: unlike recent Olympics where there was an A-standard and a less difficult B-standard, there is now only one standard, in each of the 47 events. The bad news is most of these standards appear far beyond what Irish athletes are capable of: that’s based on performances in the past, the present and, yes, even the future.

Take, for example, the number of Irish athletes who would have qualified for track events based on performances last summer: a grand total of three (Mark English in the 800m, Thomas Barr in the 400m hurdles, and Kelly Proper in the women's 200m). And the number of Irish athletes qualifying in field events? Zero.

We would have also qualified three race walkers (Rob Heffernan, Brendan Boyce and Laura Reynolds), but even at this stage, no matter how close or distant Rio might appear, we could end up with one of the smallest Irish athletics teams in our Olympic history. Success then, may begin and end with qualification.

I won't bore you with all the statistics, but of the 24 men's events, eight demand qualifying standards better than the current Irish record, including the men's 100m (Paul Hession's record, set in 2007, is 10.17; the qualifying time for Rio is 10.16). On the women's side, seven of the 23 events demand qualifying times better than the Irish record, and in several other cases – such as Derval O'Rourke in the 100m hurdles, or Deirdre Ryan in the high jump – the only Irish women to have ever met the Rio qualifying standards have retired.

There is one notable and slightly puzzling exception: the women's marathon. While the men's qualifying standard was set at the still relatively testing 2:17:00 (and hard luck to Dublin's Mick Clohisey, who ran 2:17:43 in Rotterdam last weekend), the women's standard was set at 2:42:00.

That’s not a misprint – although 2:42.00 is definitely soft compared to most of the other qualifying standards (and not forgetting Paula Radcliffe’s world record still stands at 2:15:25).

Intent on making it

Again based on performances last year, Ireland would have qualified seven women in the marathon, including

Fionnuala Britton

, who ran 2:31:46, and also Maria McCambridge, who ran 2:34:19, and remains intent on making it to Rio, even if she’ll be 41 by then.

It’s possible that Ireland could qualify even more than seven women for Rio, but of course can only send three – which could make for another good old selection row.

Now I never thought I’d write this but Athletics Ireland might have been better off going for a selection standard tougher than the IAAF’s 2:42:00.

In our most recent past, the 2012 London Olympics, Ireland qualified 23 athletes – including a women’s 4x400m relay team: indeed London not only turned out a record haul of overall qualifiers (66 in total, from 14 different sports) it also saw Ireland equal its record Olympic medal haul (one gold, one silver, and three bronze, the same as Melbourne 1956).

At least now the qualifying road to Rio is laid out in time and distance for all Irish athletes, including a certain Martin Fagan, who runs Sunday's Zurich Marathon with that 2:17:00 time in mind.

Fagan was trying to qualify for London when he tested positive for EPO, and if he does run under that 2:17:00 will ultimately find out if his present performances can ever fully distance themselves from his past.