Sometimes qualification is the height of ambition


ATHLETICS:Compared to the natural advantage other countries’ athletes enjoy, it’s hard for us to keep raising the bar to compete

I GOT an email this week from Haile Gebrselassie – and about time too. Ever since signing up for the Great Ethiopian Run last month I’ve felt the urgent need for a personal trainer, someone who knows all about running at 8,000-feet altitude, and given his famously enthusiastic nature, Haile eventually agreed.

“You need to be doing at least two uphill training sessions a week,” Haile tells me, obviously not realising my house actually sits on top of a hill. Truth is I haven’t run up or even down that hill in several months, but at least I know it’s there. The lack of facilities shouldn’t be an issue.

I’d also asked Haile how much he believes in the so-called “altitude factor” – not just when it comes to racing 10km in Addis Ababa, the highest city in Africa, but the benefits of being born and raised there.

“Oh yes,” he says, “running at altitude will help you develop lungs that utilise oxygen very efficiently, so when you go to sea levels, with more oxygen, you can run very well. But for you, coming to Ethiopia, don’t run fast at the start, because you will not be used to the altitude. Unless you come a few weeks before the run, and gradually run faster as required.”

Indeed a little acclimatisation would be ideal – and even though the Great Ethiopian Run is not until November there won’t be time for that. The most important thing right now is some hard training: in fact I’m more or less the same age as Haile, and despite the enormous mileage on his body clock, he’s still going strong. So what’s his secret?

“Well, I would say hard training first. I train twice a day seven days a week. But a lot other things. Great athletes come from Ethiopia and Kenya because in addition to the attitude we train very hard, and rest well, and eat well. Also, the London Olympics are still my goal, and I’m training hard for that.”

Maybe the secret is just hard training – not that we haven’t heard that before. It’s just we all have different definitions of the words “hard” and “training”.

After dreaming of belting out a 10-miler on Thursday morning I actually felt like I’d trained hard, and for a moment thought that perhaps I could even be competitive in Addis Adaba. Later, after WALKING up the hill to my house, I realised the fallacy of all that.

Sometimes you have to wonder how much other things are at play in this sport, beyond hard training; genetics, for a start, but also the socio-economic factor, which is often deliberately overlooked. Athletics is unquestionably the most competitive sport in the world, although we sometimes do our best to deny it. With the possible exception of football, no other sport comes close in terms of global participation. I often wonder if the Ethiopians and the Kenyans were afforded the same access to sports like cycling, swimming and even boxing then how long before they became all-conquering there as well?

What is certain is that the task of merely qualifying for major championships is becoming increasingly difficult. We’re already well into the summer season, and with that the qualification period for the London Olympics, and by my calculations only three athletes have so far achieved A-standards on the track or field: Alistair Cragg in the 5,000 metres, Fionnuala Britton and Stephanie Reilly in the 3,000 metres steeplechase – plus Robbie Heffernan and Olive Loughnane in the 20km walk.

The severity of these qualifying standards is no secret: based on the 2010 world ranking list, only 45 athletes would have achieved the London A-standard of 10.18 seconds in the men’s 100 metres – and it’s no surprise that the majority of those are either American or Jamaican.

Likewise, only 13 athletes, worldwide, would have achieved the A-standard in the high jump, and triple jump, and only 33 athletes would have run the necessary 1:45.60 for the 800 metres. Yet when it comes to the men’s marathon A-standard of 2:15.00, an incredible 474 athletes would have qualified last year – and it’s no surprise that the majority of these are either Ethiopian or Kenyan.

It was impossible not to be impressed by some achievements outside of athletics this week – starting with Rory McIlroy’s victory in the US Open, and then Conor Niland’s battling first round exit at Wimbledon. McIlroy is clearly blessed with amazing talent and an extraordinary work ethic, yet there’s still something quietly elitist about world golf. There was a nice spread of Europeans at the Congressional Country Club, a few Australians, South Africans, Japanese and Koreans, and the rest were all American – and there’s no reason why Ireland shouldn’t be competitive among them, especially given our countryside is littered with golf courses. Altitude is definitely not a factor anyway.

It was interesting as well to read Martina Navratilova’s comments about this year’s Wimbledon, and why it would take “half an hour” to explain why Britain can’t produce more contenders than Andy Murray.

“Fifty years ago it was only English-speaking countries,” she reckoned, “and 80 countries are represented this year. Tennis has become much more international” – and in some ways Niland’s Wimbledon qualification is merely a reflection of that. Then yesterday afternoon Ray Moylette and Joe Ward both won gold medals in Ankara – and with that underlined the fact that boxing represents perhaps our only chance of a medal in London.

That’s not saying we don’t have some future Olympic hopefuls in other sports: I was at the Morton Stadium in Santry on Wednesday, interviewing Natalya Coyle, who hopes to be in the medal hunt come Rio de Janeiro, in 2016. She’s only 20, and well on course to qualify for London, but knows she’ll be 25 or 26 before she peaks in the Modern Pentathlon.

It was somewhat ironic that training in the background were Derval O’Rourke and Ailis McSweeney, who must face the Americans, Jamaicans and other natural born sprinters in London next summer.

“I think for us maybe sports like the Modern Pentathlon is the way forward for our Olympic sports,” Coyle told me. “We’re not Kenyans, we’re not Jamaicans. We just don’t have the population to really compete in some of those events, although I know some sprinters would kill me for saying that.”

Perhaps they would, and while none of this is suggesting we should give up on athletics, it’s not going to be easy to keep raising the bar like certain other sports are – and sometimes qualification really is as good as it gets.

In the meantime, you can join Haile in November’s Great Ethiopia Run by taking a look at – and get ready for some good old-fashioned hard training.