Pierce O’Callaghan a rare Irish presence at the top of World Athletics

Former race walker tasked by Seb Coe with clearing up haphazard athletics calendar

There is no definite reason why an Irish person, male or female, has hitherto failed to scale the upper heights of the world athletics organisation, as in the former International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), recently rebranded as World Athletics.

Pierce O’Callaghan, the first Irish person to have landed himself in such a position, has a theory, which makes good sense given those such days, for most people anyway, are mercifully long since gone and forgotten.

It’s because before Russia, South Africa, and other certain member associations caused enough unrest to be suspended from the IAAF, Ireland got there first, back in the 1935, when the old National Athletic and Cycling Association (NACA), who never recognised the partition of Ireland, voted against the IAAF ruling that member associations be delimited by international political boundaries.

So they got the boot. It meant there was no Irish team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and even years after the establishment of the Irish Amateur Athletic Union in 1937, later merging into Bord Luthchleas na hÉireann (BLÉ) in 1967, all that was considered recent history.

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“It’s true we’ve never had anyone on the IAAF council, as in the elected positions,” says O’Callaghan. “There have been some candidates, over the years. Frankly, Ireland had a strained relationship with the IAAF over those first 60 years or so.”

Indeed if you look at Russia, suspended over doping, or 30 years ago, South Africa suspended over apartheid, Ireland was the first country to have its federation suspended, over the political situation in the North. Having those two federations didn’t sit well, both claiming to be the official body.

“I’ve read some of the old correspondence from the 1920s and 1930s, and we were just seen as ‘trouble-makers’, and those words were used frequently.

“In fairness it’s entirely different now. World Athletics president Seb Coe has a very strong affiliation with Ireland, one of his grandparents coming from Kilkenny. Seb also spent many of his childhood holidays in the west of Ireland, I know he feels very much related to Ireland. And since the establishment of Athletics Ireland, in 1999, I would say the relationship has thrived.”

O'Callaghan had unquestionably earned his stripes in the sport before being named head of competition management at World Athletics, back in May, the 46-year-old effectively was a fan of the sport too since his childhood days in Ashbourne. He won 16 national titles over a variety of race-walking distances (following in the footsteps of his father, Bernie) and would have competed in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 had injury not stood in his way.

Even before that he was working behind the scenes, co-opted onto the BLÉ records committee in 1993, where his passion for athletics history and statistics first thrived, and by 1998 was on the BLÉ management committee. He served a few years as Athletics Ireland press officer after 2001, then took up the roles as events manager with Scottish Athletics, head of communications with European Athletics, before setting up his own event management company.

“At the time there wasn’t a fully professional set up in Athletics Ireland, unlike these days, so to get those opportunities, you had to leave the country. I always wanted to bring up my family in Ireland, but at the same time, knew I’d have to travel to get the experience needed to ever operate on the global stage.”

Which is exactly how he got to where he is now: home is in Tuam, Co Galway, with his wife and four children, only for the best part of the last decade O’Callaghan has held various global roles, including director of sport at the inaugural European Games in Baku in 2015, director of operations for the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London, and director of readiness for the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha.

It was after that Coe asked O’Callaghan to help put some order on the international calendar, a proper concern for World Athletics, given the variety and scale of world events, his first step there being the establishment of the World Athletics Continental Tour. He became head of the global calendar unit in January 2020, only to find the entire calendar wiped out two months later, due to Covid-19 – and the Tokyo Olympics ended up pushing almost every event back.

In April of this year, after then current head of competition management left the position, O’Callaghan was asked by Coe would he take over. Order mostly restored, 2022 is now set to be busiest ever in the global athletics calendar, the World Championships, postponed from last year, set for Eugene, Oregon from July 15th-25th; then come the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, from July 28th to August 8th, before the European Championships in Munich from August 15th to 21st. That’s three major championships in six weeks and that’s just for starters.

“Definitely, 2022 is going to be the biggest year ever in athletics, the most World Championships anyway, between indoors, outdoors, under-20, race walking, half-marathon, the lot.

“In terms of the overall athletics calendar, the problem was it was too fragmented, a mishmash, really. Over the years even you might say Sonia O’Sullivan or Derval O’Rourke won a race in Berlin or Bratislava, wherever that race was, and most people wouldn’t really know what that meant. It was very difficult to compare meetings.

“If you look at football, everyone knows the Champions League is bigger than the Europa League, or that the Premiership is bigger than League One. So one of the main thing we did was to create clearly defined levels of competitions which divide the criteria based on the prize money being offered, because with more prize money, invariably you’ll get the bigger stars.

“So the structure is simple now. For the summer track season, it’s the Diamond League, which people know is the top tier, then the Continental Tour, which is graded gold, silver and bronze, again based off prize money, and in turn the world ranking points that are available.

“We’ve done the same for the World Indoor Tour, race walking, combined events and just two months ago for cross-country too. That’s all structured now for 2022, and athletes, spectators, viewers will all know what exact level of competition they’re talking about. It also allows for athletes of different calibre to work their way up through the different tiers.

“What we’ve also done is agree a designated weekend for National Championships, all over the world. Before, it was completely haphazard. We’ve been trying for the last 20-odd years, to find that window, and we’ve agreed for the next four years with most major nations, including the US, is that the last weekend is June is National Championship weekend.

“But this is the sort of job I’d always wanted to do. Previously with the young family, moving to World Athletics HQ in Monaco wasn’t the option, and one of the positives of the Covid world we live in now is that so much work can be done on Zoom, and I’ll only need to be in Monaco for a week or 10 days each month.”

O’Callaghan was on a site visit Eugene in September, the first US host city for a World Athletics Championships: “This really is the home of American track and field, the only entirely purpose-built athletics stadium in the US, and I’ve never experienced a city that really does get athletics the way Eugene does.

“Historic Hayward Field is a magical stadium, 25,000 seats, and the furthest seat away from lane eight, is still closer to the nearest seat was in London’s Olympic Stadium. That’s how the people want it, that’s the tradition. It’s very different to most other major stadiums, that creates challenges for us, but as a fan it took my breath away.”

World Athletics also view Eugene as the chance for the US to buy back into the sport, the chance too to move beyond some of the credibility issues around athletics, including governance, and what can and cannot believed,

“I’m not sticking my head in the sand here,” says O’Callaghan. “I know athletics has had challenges in recent years, and as a fan of the sport I was looking on in horror at what was going on in the last few years of the previous regime, the Russian stuff, the cover ups, for me athletics had lost its soul.

“Undoubtedly now, five, six years on, with Seb Coe at the helm, with the Athletics Integrity Unit, I think it’s regained a lot of that soul. In the past, there was an average of just over one bid for each World Championships, now that number of cities bidding is between two and three. The market has regained its trust in the sport, the event bids are a lot more competitive, and I think all the reforms that Seb has pushed in has helped regain the trust of a lot of stakeholders.

“People will always try to take shortcuts, but I don’t think the structure has even been as strong to enable clean athletes to compete, and to ensure that anyone who does cheat will be caught. I wouldn’t be a part of all this, honestly, if I didn’t believe that.”