Sonia O’Sullivan: All eyes now on Tokyo and the challenge of Olympic qualification

The European Indoors Championship brought real competition back to our screens

Ajla Del Ponte of Switzerland  celebrates after winning the women’s 60 metres final ahead of Carolle Zahi of France  during the European  Indoor Championships  in Torun, Poland. Photograph: Piotr Hawalej/Getty Images

Ajla Del Ponte of Switzerland celebrates after winning the women’s 60 metres final ahead of Carolle Zahi of France during the European Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland. Photograph: Piotr Hawalej/Getty Images

 

After safely and successfully navigating the first few months of 2021 and getting through the European Indoor Championships it appears the Tokyo Olympic Games are just beginning to realistically appear on the horizon.

The uncertainty of 2020 seems to have evolved into a greater degree of possibility and likelihood, people are finding ways to navigate the restricted and testing challenges as a result of Covid-19 and move forward and prepare for the most unlikely Olympic Games ever staged one year on from their original date.

Athletics was to the fore on the weekend for most engrossed in the daily coverage and analysis of the European Indoor Championships, many ready to shout out loud that track is back as we all topped up on the lack of live racing and real competition.

As enthralling and exciting as it was for many, with so many Irish athletes taking part and progressing through the rounds, the reality is this is just a stepping stone towards the Olympic dream for many.

The pressure is on for athletes to be ready when the opportunity arises to race

For many the European Indoor Championships served as a release valve after so many months of training without any real targets in sight. For others it’s a reality check, a line in the sand to determine where they are now and where they stand in relation to Olympic qualification. But also with regard to being competitive at the Olympic Games and delivering a result that is a true reflection of the work required to succeed at the highest level.

It’s not so clearcut for some sports that have yet to qualify and how to squeeze in all the postponed qualifying events before the Olympic entry deadline.

It’s not as simple as it used to be and there are many hoops and Covid protocols to navigate in order to travel, compete and hopefully progress to the Games.

There are many sporting pockets working away quietly and athletes are doing their daily job more like a daily job than ever before, as this is what allows professional sport to continue on behind closed doors in a safe and manageable environment.

All these pockets are necessary to increase the distance between people and allow for social distancing as much as possible.

As the focus now quickly turns towards Tokyo there will be a different type of pressure on athletes to prepare in varying environments, that may not be what they ideally set out to do but the best available option.

The usual hopping around from race to race in Europe and beyond may not be as simple as we are normally used to. Athletes will need to be ready at a moment’s notice to travel and race if they need to or to not race as much as normal if already qualified, when the best decision for some may be to race sporadically and put more effort into preparing in the training environment. Of course this all eats in to the livelihood of athletes as there are less viable earning opportunities while navigating the best route to Tokyo.

The reality is that as it stands the only Irish athletes that will realistically compete in Olympic finals are those that don’t have to go through heats and semi-finals to progress

With 134 days to the opening ceremony and just 105 days to post a qualifying standard or secure a ranking position to qualify, the pressure is on for athletes to be ready when the opportunity arises to race. And then also to be confident once qualified to set out a plan that will give them the best opportunity to be at their best when the Olympics kick-off at the end of July and for athletics the first week of August.

As it stands Irish athletics has just seven athletes that have achieved the qualifying standard, two women and five men, so their spots are secure. For the 16 others that are inside the quota of athletes or just hovering inside or just outside the cut-off mark it’s a tense time when the importance of choosing races will be of utmost importance to ensure every possibility of qualifying .

The Olympic time standards are out of reach for many but that doesn’t shut the door, it just means athletes need to be strategic in their race planning but also work out once qualified how to be most efficient with their energy and preparation to allow themselves be ready to raise the bar even more on the greatest stage of all.

We have seen throughout the indoor season and also in the marathon the standard has been raised across the board. There are a myriad of different reasons and circumstances for the obvious improvements. Some Irish athletes have been running faster than ever before. It’s exciting to see athletes pushing each other and raising the bar to reach standards that are well beyond what many ever thought possible, just to keep up. If you don’t raise your level then you will get left behind.

One thing that we can’t lose sight of is that it’s not just Irish athletes that are running faster but across the world the standards are improving, so you still need to figure out how to improve your position in order to progress through the rounds and get to the final. Only then can you truly weigh up the possibilities of success, not compared to history but alongside those you need to compete with today.

The reality is that as it stands the only Irish athletes that will realistically compete in Olympic finals are those that don’t have to go through heats and semi-finals to progress. There is still time to improve the position and be that athlete to make a difference but even with the positive success, and forward trajectory of Irish athletics there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to be done in the next four months if anyone is to be able to stand out and make a difference.

There has to be a realistic view taken and allow athletes to prepare without the pressure of overbearing expectation to deliver the impossible . Only then will athletes have some chance to step into the unknown, rise to the challenge without the extra burden of expectation to carry with them into the Olympic Stadium.

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