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Sonia O’Sullivan: What should be the exact role of high performance?

It’s great news that TG4 are bringing athletics back into Irish living rooms

I was on a group Zoom call recently talking Irish Olympic preparations and was asked a question by Antonio Maurogiovanni, the high performance director at Rowing Ireland and the man credited with a lot of their success of late.

It was quite a difficult question, wanting to know about my experience at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and did anybody in the federation ever help me get to the bottom of it, like really help sort it out.

And actually nobody did. It was very much brushed under the carpet, as if let’s move on to the next thing. There were people there putting their arm around you and everything else, but there wasn’t much talk, even trying to talk through some of it. Sometimes you need something like that, or someone who is able to talk through those times when you’re not successful as well as those times where you are successful.

In any high performance sport these things happen. It’s true you do learn more from you defeats than your victories, but only if you’re able to deal with them, work them out.

I think at this stage it's pretty clear the Tokyo Olympics are going to happen, and athletes and coaches and everyone else involved need to be fully prepared for that. It's also clear the athletes are well motivated for them now, and it's time to stop thinking about the worst case scenario, and time to starting planning for the best Irish performances. Which is really what high performance is all about.

It's clear that for more and more Irish athletes, finding the way forward is to link in with a professional or semi-professional running group

It’s not just about athletes hitting the qualifying standard, so what should be the exact role of high performance within Athletics Ireland? Are they going to test every athlete, make sure they’re ready to run, and ready to be their absolute best? Or will we be left with some athletes with a list of reasons why they didn’t perform?

In my day, the only role of high performance was really to get athletes into meetings. Now, it’s about managing all athletes, including the up and coming athletes, especially where to best direct them. I also feel that the best athletes will find the best way no matter what. Because it’s also clear that for more and more Irish athletes, finding the way forward is to link in with a professional or semi-professional running group and base themselves away from home at various training camps throughout the year.

You also have to wonder what role the federation plays in the day-to-day training and competition schedules of the highest performing athletes. Of course as a federation, Athletics Ireland doesn’t just manage the high performance athletes; this is just one small part of the many areas it has to manage and organise throughout the year.

There was a time when high performance was almost the extent of Athletics Ireland: in recent years recreational runners are the driving force behind the growth in membership, funding the organisation that allows athletes to be supported when they travel to represent Ireland; but it can create a dependency model which is never a good thing when you are trying to develop as an athlete.

Everyone is under the same umbrella, so when Covid-19 hit and everything was put on hold, everything stopped. All the local community fun runs, county province and national championships all put on hold. This is also reflected in the current Athletics Ireland membership, which dropped from 45,306 at the end of February 2020, to 19,702 at the end of February 2021.

Normal

It makes you question will people re-sign once things get back to normal, when events are eventually allowed to restart on a normal basis without any restrictions on travel and mingling and the “spread” after that race that was so important to clubs all over the country.

The best news this week was that TG4 will bring athletics back into living rooms around the country. Showing live coverage of global meetings further introduces athletes and gives them a platform to create a following as they head towards the Tokyo. As much as most events are streamed live on some platform these days, the real connection and ability to grow the sport and create the emotional attachment between fans and the athletes is to get athletics back on TV, when people can all watch it together at the same time and restart the conversation.

We saw it indoors with Nadia Power and Sarah Lavin competing at the World Indoor Tour, where there was some further momentum and expectation ahead of the European Indoor Championships. It can take a few seasons to build, grow and develop the sport so that athletes become household names and provide inspiration for young athletes and also create a connection between the fun runners and the recreational athletes.

Athletics is also such a diverse sport, and there is the need now to find a way to give our young athletes every chance especially those that have missed out on juvenile and school competitions for over a year now.

It can't be easy for athletes in Ireland watching from afar wondering why can't we have some level of competition?

Our elite athletes will survive, they will find a way. Still, many countries are putting on events, but it’s the hoops that you have to jump through to travel, to train, to race and then to return home again and manage the different protocols in different countries while all the time trying to stay safely in your own bubble to avoid any risk of infection.

As we know more and the vaccines are being rolled out and taking effect, there are more options out there and people can make plans to compete. Australia is on another spectrum to most countries, the national Championships last weekend were no different to any other year. The elimination process has meant even mask wearing is not required, you could easily forget that it's not the same all over the world. In the US where many young Irish athletes returned to college last year, the NCAA season has been taking place with scores of races across the country every weekend.

It can’t be easy for athletes in Ireland watching from afar wondering why can’t we have some level of competition? Even some test events in small controlled environments, something to look forward to and to give purpose to the training and hard work that continues.

There will always be some dependency on the federation, who obviously enter athletes into the major championships, and then when the athlete shows up at the championship, the federation takes charge. Does that need to be reviewed, redefined maybe, rather than just turn up at the championships, be around the place, when they haven’t really done anything to get the athletes there.

With Nadia Power, obviously she got some funding, but to me the problem was lack of communication, after racing in January, February and March, she had to wait until the middle of April to get it, and ended up having to front everything herself. Especially if that funding is not part of the athlete carding scheme, I think there needs to be a bit more clarity on that.

Athletes are outliers, well used to doing their own thing. In taking up my new role as assistant coach with a Nike training group based in Portland, Oregon beginning this week, I feel that's a chance too to gain further insight into what high performance is all about.

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