Medals or no medals – and unfortunately no, despite some congratulatory messages it wasn’t a championship event – the 2021 World Athletics Relays in Silesia, Poland over the weekend certainly enhanced the status and form of Irish athletes in line for Tokyo Olympic selection.
With just eight weeks now before the final June 29th cut-off date for track and field events (the marathon and race walks cut-off is May 31st), 21 Irish athletes are either safely in or else very close to qualifying positions, either by hitting the qualifying standard or by being within their qualifying quota. This is already four more than qualified for Rio in 2016.
These includes the six additional spots, three men and three women, which came with the Irish mixed 4x400 metres relay making their final in Silesia, later finishing seventh: Thomas Barr, Chris O'Donnell, Phil Healy, Sharlene Mawdsley had secured that place in the heat, with Andrew Mellon taking over from Barr for the final, with each country allowed to select six relay athletes, three men and three women, including the two reserves/alternatives.
“All this is going to do is drive us on towards the Olympics,” Barr said, the mixed 4x400m relay a debut event in Tokyo, where most teams seem content now to follow the man-woman-woman-man format, although they can run in any order. “We knew what we could do and it was a matter of getting that out on the day, it was a savage run.”
Barr and Healy are already within the qualifying quota for their respective events (Barr ranked 16th in the 400m hurdles, Healy with a quota ranking of 37th in the 200m). On the men's side, Mark English (800m), Andrew Coscoran (1,500m) and David Kenny (20km walk) are also within qualifying quota with some places to spare.
As is Leon Reid in the 200m, the Bath-based sprinter who last month was released on bail after being charged with four offences, including conspiracy to supply a Class A drug. Reid is due to appear again at Bristol Crown Court on May 12th, and it's unclear how this may yet impact on his selection. He returned to action in England over the weekend, running a personal best of 10.30 in the 100m.
Five Irish men ensured their Tokyo qualification on time - Brendan Boyce (50km walk) and Alex Wright (20km), plus the full quota of three men's marathon qualifiers in Stephen Scullion, Kevin Seaward and Paul Pollock, all hit their necessary mark either last year or late 2019.
Of the Irish women qualified, Ciara Mageean is the only one to secure the necessary standard on the track thanks to her 4:00.15 over 1,500m at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, while last Sunday week Aoife Cooke hit the qualifying time in the marathon, improving her personal best by almost four minutes to 2:28:36 in winning the women's Cheshire Elite Marathon, also moving her to number four on the all-time Irish list, only the fifth Irish woman to break 2:30.
With that, Cooke joined Fionnuala McCormack, the other Irish woman so far qualified for the Tokyo marathon and in line for her fourth Olympics after she ran 2:26.47 in the 2019 Chicago marathon.
Nadia Power (800m) and Michelle Finn (3,000m steeplechase) are also within the qualifying quota for their events, with Sarah Lavin recently dropping just one place outside of the quota of 40 athletes in the 100m hurdles, though intent on getting back inside there by June 29th.
“I’m under no illusion, it’s skin of my teeth, I know I’ll have to be better than ever before in the few outdoor races I get, if I am to make Tokyo,” Lavin said recently. “It’s Olympic year and everyone else is stepping up their game too.
“The other part of you has to think, why won’t it happen? Because you are so focused on what you have to do, every day, and getting your 12 hours sleep every night, eating right, and making all the right choices that will ultimately make me faster.”
One of the first and possibly last chances for Irish athletes to gain some Tokyo experience at home will come at the Belfast Irish Milers Meet, still set to go ahead at the Mary Peters Track in Belfast on Saturday May 29th, although a permit from Athletics Ireland is still pending.