Restrictions threaten 147 unbroken years of Irish athletics history

Government decree means National Track and Field Championships now in grave doubt

 Pierce O’Callaghan: “The athletes deserve the chance to compete and the championships deserve to happen.”  Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Pierce O’Callaghan: “The athletes deserve the chance to compete and the championships deserve to happen.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

The Government always knew there would be many implications when deciding against the move to Phase 4 in the lifting Covid-19 restrictions, and somewhere in the background is 147 unbroken years of Irish athletics competition.

The 2020 National Track and Field Championships, originally set for the last weekend in June, then postponed because of Covid-19, were refixed the weekend of August 22nd/23rd, but entirely subject to that moving to Phase 4. Other sports may have been hopeful for it, Athletics Ireland were depending on it

Without the increase in permitted numbers from 200 to 500 for outdoor gatherings, the championships won’t now go ahead that weekend – and with that threatening to end the longest unbroken run of any athletics championships anywhere in the world.

This limit will next be reviewed in three weeks, beginning from August 10th, which means it will be August 31st before any potential increase, or the first weekend in September before that applies in the wider sporting context.

First staged on Monday, July 7th 1873, ironically postponed by two days because of bad weather, the national track and field championships have been moved around to a few different venues in the 147 years since, before settling at the Morton Stadium in Santry, but remain unbroken, even by two World Wars.

Even with an increase to 500, Athletics Ireland had intended to stage the 2020 Championships without any spectators, and over four separate sessions, two on the Saturday and two on the Sunday, clearing the stadium entirely between each session.

Hardly ideal, only better than no championships at all.

It’s unclear at this stage whether or not Athletics Ireland will look again at potential dates in September or October.

In the meantime Pierce O’Callaghan, Irish athletics historian and consultant with World Athletics, who has also recorded every winner of the Irish championships since 1873, believes a ready-made solution is to break up the event into different regions of the country, who would each stage their part of the championships.

The regions

“My proposal is to farm the events out to the regions,” O’Callaghan told The Irish Times.

“For example, Patsy McGonagle said Finn Valley would love to host National championship 800m, shot put and high jump, other clubs would kill to have the chance to host national championship events in their tracks, which they would never normally get, but have still have had a big Government investment.

“It can absolutely work. It used to work when nationals were held on GAA pitches with no steeplechase or pole vault facilities, and this can happen all within the Government restrictions. For one year only, obviously, but the athletes deserve the chance to compete and the championships deserve to happen.”

Last month, the US Track and Field Championships were cancelled, having been held in some form every year since 1876, when Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army on the American Civil War, was president of the United States.

The Irish Championships have already been outrunning them by three years, after Henry Wallace Doveton Dunlop and some colleagues founded the Irish Champion Athletic Club (ICAC), effectively the first athletics association of Ireland.

Although the first ICAC championships were staged in Trinity, on that July 7th of 1873, Dunlop, an accomplished race walker during his own time at Trinity, had already envisioned the larger venue and that December purchased about eight-and-a-quarter acres of marshland at Lansdowne Road, between the south Dublin railway line and the Dodder River. He named his new venue the Royal Irish Parks Stadium, transformed these days into the Aviva.

Among the highlights of those first championships was Tom Davin’s world record high jump of 1.78m; one of the judges for the race walking events was also certain Abraham Stoker, who later wrote his 1897 Gothic novel, Dracula.

A novel event perhaps in 1873, and something novel is now required to keep the 2020 championships alive.

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