Primary Schools Sports offer lessons for a lifetime


ATHLETICS:It’s often forgotten just how influential sport can be even for a nine- or 10-year-old, and athletics is no exception, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

PROBABLY THE last thing Eamonn Coghlan needed is another title next to his name. Even Pat Kenny appeared a little confused about how to address him this week, introducing Coghlan on his radio show as “Chairman of the Boards”, the “former World champion”, the “multiple Olympian” and then, of course, as “Senator”.

“I’ll just be myself,” Coghlan assured him, and no one should worry about that. He may be sitting on the political equivalent of death row, but Coghlan won’t be losing his cool. I still love that story about Coghlan being approached by a stranger in a bar, who told him his wife had just left him for another man. “I think now I know what it’s like to finish fourth in the Olympics,” the man reckoned. Rather than take this as an insult, Coghlan simply replied, “Yeah, but you don’t know what it’s like to finish fourth in the Olympics TWICE!”

No matter how many days or nights the 24th Seanad Éireann actually lasts, Coghlan has come a long way. Especially when one considers the setbacks he’s had to overcome. He recently recalled one of those, about how losing a race, being “completely hammered”, actually “sparked something in me, to come back and try to be better next time”.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t an Olympics or World Championships, but rather the Dublin Primary School Sports. It was the 1960s and the kid from Drimnagh Castle CBS finished last in the under-11 800 metres. “No point in being a superstar at too young an age,” Coghlan’s coach, Gerry Farnan, used to say, and luckily for both of them, winning is definitely not the priority at the Dublin Primary School Sports.

It’s often forgotten just how influential sport can be even for a nine- or 10-year-old, and athletics is no exception. There will be bigger and flashier and more important athletic events this year, but few more purposeful or influential as run in Santry over the next week or so. They’ll come in their thousands from across the county, from as far north as Meath, and as far south as Wicklow, and no one will be worried about either time or distance, only the taking part – if you still trust in that kind of thing.

Not to be confused with the All-Ireland Schools Championships – which cater for secondary level and can sometimes be overly competitive – the Primary School Sports are run on a regional basis only, and, in Dublin, under the now separate athletics division of Cumann na mBunscol. Believe it or not, these sports have been staged since 1928, originally in Croke Park, later in Belfield, and more recently at the Morton Stadium – and starting next Tuesday, and over six days until June 9th, around 3,500 kids from some 340 schools will take part in one or more of the seven events: the sprint, the 500m, the hurdles, the long jump, high jump, shot put and the relay – and from Under-10 to Under-13.

Obviously this can be something of an organisational nightmare, although the beauty really is the simplicity. And what makes this level of athletics so important is not so much the physical and active element, nor the all-inclusive nature, but the basic philosophy of it all. We’re blessed right now with the success of rugby, GAA and other team sports, and to see that trickling down to young kids is great, but not all of them can or want to throw a ball or learn how to tackle, and especially not a young girl.

But don’t take my word for it. Anthony O’Flynn is over 25 years teaching at primary school level, most of those at St Joseph’s Boys National School in Terenure, and his enormous enthusiasm and support for these sports is based solely on what he sees on the faces of the kids – and indeed their parents – this time every year.

“The great thing about primary school sport is that kids are most malleable up to 11 or 12,” he says. “You develop attitudes at that age that can come around again at 18. So there’s a responsibility there, because you can really lead them. Kids like to copy, and love copying the positive. They’ll do good when they see good, and that’s just one of the things these sports do.

“Running is also for everyone, and a lasting sport. And it’s the first sport most children will do, and where they don’t require the skill of, say, football or hurling. They’re not going to drop a ball. They’re not going to be intimidated by some other kid out-playing them. They finish the 100 metres, and even if they don’t win you can tell them they ran well. And we need to get everyone in school involved in sport and exercise.

“I think it’s especially important for the girls. The girls events were only introduced in 1974, and we now have nearly 2,000 girls. And I actually think the future of the sport for us is with female athletes. The boys will muscle their way in somewhere. But so many of the girls give up because no one gives them the support. And there is a lot of future Sonias out there.”

Like most school sports, it’s purely voluntary, and in fact the Dublin Primary School Sports nearly fell through in 2003, when they almost became too big to handle. Now the work begins almost a year in advance, when Caoimhe Doherty and Etain Aylward begin registering schools, trying to cater for everyone. It’s not easy.

“We’ve had to turn some schools away,” says O’Flynn, “purely because of numbers. And I used to teach in the inner city, and it broke my heart to see the talent slipping through there. You’d have kids out selling papers at 14. And you do see some incredible talent, even at this age. We’ve been influenced by the increase in foreign nationals as well, say Nigerians, even Kenyans. So the competition has really heated up.

“Another race we’ve introduced this year is for pupils with special needs, maybe autistic, or with Down Syndrome. All the crew are so positive about it, and we’re actually calling it the ‘Great Race’. It’s only 50 metres, and there’s a medal for everyone that finishes. These are kids that wouldn’t get a chance like this anywhere else. For them there’s a big confidence factor, and this give them that confidence. Some people ask us why we bother. Because it’s worth bothering about.”

“You tried your best and failed miserably,” Homer Simpson once said. “The lesson is, never try.”

At the Primary School Sports the whole purpose is giving athletics a try, and even if some of them do fail miserably, that’s still a valuable lesson. Just ask Senator Coghlan.