Sonia O’Sullivan: We must get Ireland team right for European Cross-Country

This is a great opportunity to rebuild some profile for the sport, and help inspire next generation

Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan and Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain in the  European Cross-Country Championships at Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland, in December  2003. Photograph:   Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan and Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain in the European Cross-Country Championships at Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland, in December 2003. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

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After 12 years, and for only the second time, the European Cross-Country Championships are coming back to home ground. This may not be the biggest sporting event in the country this year, but it is a great chance to rebuild some profile for the sport and help inspire the next generation of Irish athletes.

So far there hasn’t been much fuss or promotion of the event, postponed from December of last year because of the pandemic, and if anything it should be more appreciated this time round.

I have fond memories of the event, including the first and only time I competed in 2003, when the championships were staged at Holyrood Park in the heart of Edinburgh.

I’d made a decision to focus on this race from a few months out, and I also wanted to let anyone that would listen to me know that was the plan. I knew it would be difficult to win an individual or team medal, and wanted the best team around me. Cross-country is such a tough event, and when you can’t always deliver an individual medal you need to have another reason to fight on.

As it turned out we got together the best possible team available on the day, Rosemary Ryan, Anne Kennan Buckley and Catherina McKiernan all delivering to help ensure we won the team silver medal behind Britain, who also won the individual gold thanks to Paula Radcliffe.

For eight weeks before all I thought about was Edinburgh; every training session was geared towards this one race. No matter what the event it’s never too early to state your intentions and get the idea in your head, and to inspire others to want to be a part of the best team possible, to make every session count.

Excitement

I can also remember the excitement and build-up in 2009 when the championships were staged at Santry Demesne in Dublin. Mary Cullen had finished fourth in 2008, and earlier in the year won a bronze medal at the European Indoors over 3,000m, and was the poster girl for the first home event.

There was huge excitement and build-up at that time, and on the day crowds ran around cheering the athletes. It was widely viewed as one of the better days in Irish athletics despite the disappointment of not delivering any medals at home.

There were still some great performances, including Mark Kenneally in eighth place; Ciara Mageean ninth in the junior women’s race; and, despite the expectation on Cullen to step up to the podium, she rallied to finish in 12th place just behind Fionnuala McCormack in 11th place, helping the senior women to a fourth-place team score. So close but yet so far in that placing just off the podium.

Now just over eight weeks away from the championships on December 12th, to be staged at the Sport Ireland campus at Abbotstown, Co Dublin, it’s time to start building up some energy and excitement, and, more importantly, get all the best Irish athletes on board.

This is an event where Ireland has been most successful in the past, returning seven individual and 10 team medals, going back to the first individual gold won by Catherina at the inaugural championships in the north of England in 1994.

There’s no reason to believe that medals can’t be won by Irish athletes this year, but they are not going to be handed out without some hard work and expectation on the athletes to inspire each other to want to be a part of this Irish team.

It’s also about giving the public something to look forward to in making the trek to Abbotstown in northwest Co Dublin.

Walk the course

I actually embarked on this trek myself last week, inspired that one of the athletes I work with in Oregon is planning to race; so figured I should at least walk the course while I am here, knowing that the underfoot conditions are likely to change over the coming weeks, but the undulations will remain the same.

I’ve been out to Abbotstown before and have been around the purpose-built course. It has been updated now with some helpful signposts, including the start and finish, like something you might see on a point-to-point racecourse.

I also made a quick call to Dublin Track Club coach Feidhlim Kelly to help me to gather my bearings, and then set off to plot a map of the marked course so I could look back and recall the undulations.

It is a lovely setting, helped by fine weather, even if knowing the one thing about cross-country running is what you get today could all change tomorrow, definitely in eight weeks’ time.

I could also picture the finish gantry and the excited spectators running from point to point to try and get the best view of the athletes racing to the finish. It’s this excitement and visualisation that athletes need as part of their physical and mental training when building to a big event, to be able to share that with teammates as they all prepare for the event and the countdown begins.

Not all athletes will be based in Ireland, but with technology now it wouldn’t be too difficult to share the virtual course and give athletes a good idea of what to expect, and weekly updates on the course’s condition.

The Irish teams will not be finalised until after the National Championships, due to be held on November 22nd, three weeks out from the Europeans. That event will be held at Santry in order to save the course at Abbotstown.

It means the only chance to get a good feel for the course is this Sunday’s Autumn Cross-Country Championships at Abbotstown. Any Irish athletes looking to be on the team, and based in Ireland, should really go and take a site visit at least once, or even better with a group of athletes to generate some excitement.

Higher level

We need out best athletes to be striving for this event. This is what drives the competition to a higher level, and then there is realistic opportunities to be competitive on a home course, to get comfortable with the twists and turns, undulations and slippery underfoot conditions, and ultimately challenge for medals across the six races, plus the mixed team relay.

It’s time to show some leadership by the athletes, but also by the federation in targeting the races where we know as a country we are currently most competitive.

It needs realistic, achievable targets to aim for across the board to ensure we have the best available athletes in the right race to achieve the best result.

Let’s not waste this opportunity and inspire the next generation of Irish athletes, especially on home ground.

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