Sonia O’Sullivan: Build it and they’ll come . . . hopefully

With National Indoor Arena, poor facilities for athletes can’t be used as excuse any more

Athletes in action  at the Sport Ireland National Indoor Arena in Abbotstown, Dublin, last weekend. Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Athletes in action at the Sport Ireland National Indoor Arena in Abbotstown, Dublin, last weekend. Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

 

There was a sort of field of dreams feel around the indoor running track at Abbotstown last weekend, the centrepiece to the newly opened Sport Ireland National Indoor Arena. 

It’s definitely impressive, long overdue, and the fact most Irish athletes selected for next weekend’s European Indoor Championships in Belgrade were there competing is already some reflection of its value. It made for one of the better National Indoor Championships in recent years. 

It was also a first opportunity for the curious spectator such as myself to get a look at this world-class facility. For years, this is something Irish-based athletes have been crying out for – a proper indoor facility to get some quality training sessions in during the winter months and, given our often inclement weather, throughout the year. 

Right alongside at the Abbotstown campus is the recently developed cross-country course, perfect for the distance runners to get closer to nature while logging extra miles before and after any interval sessions that they may plan to do on the indoor track.

All in all, it is an excellent set up, and again not before its time. But does this guarantee that the standards will improve? Or that Irish athletes will return from future indoor championships with more medals and better results? 

It had always been a question that Irish sport had asked itself down through the years: why haven’t we got proper facilities? It was one of the reasons so many athletes either left the country to train, or took up US athletics scholarships, or went elsewhere. It was one of the reasons I left for Villanova all those years ago. 

Home-grown athletes

The seed needs to be planted in the athlete’s mind long before they decide to travel further afield and explore other avenues of development. This is where the indoor track, if properly exploited and used to identify talent from an early age, will benefit the future of Irish athletics.

Indoor athletics is a very comfortable and attractive environment, and this can have a huge impact on the desire of a young athlete to want to train. Sport in this country has moved on a lot, and the young athlete expects the best facilities, which again should make the indoor arena a valuable asset for the future development of Irish athletes.

Even for us spectators at the weekend, it is a comfortable environment in which to spend time and enjoy the athletics, and I got the impression that this could be a way to help Irish athletes make a mark on the international stage. Despite our lack of an indoor facility for so long, we still boast an impressive history of indoor championship medal winners on the world and European stages. And they didn’t all come through the American scholarship route.

Still, the indoor season is very short. There isn’t much time for the 11 Irish athletes selected for Belgrade next weekend to find their rhythm on the tight bends.

Most of the races at the National Indoor Championships last weekend were very competitive and entertaining, but you were left wondering if the European championships will be more of a leap than a step-up for many Irish athletes.

There is no 400m hurdles event indoors – unfortunately – so Thomas Barr will not be competing; Mark English, who won a bronze medal at the last European indoors in Prague two years ago, is on the sidelines with injury; and so it seems the hopes of the nation lie with Ciara Mageean, our most recent European medal winner over 1,500m outdoors in Amsterdam last summer.

It’s a pretty unenviable position for Ciara to be in. She actually had quite a disrupted lead-up to the championships, so rather than going to Belgrade with confidence and good form, we are once again mostly left hoping for a result, rather than expecting one.

Travelling in hope

This is a mindset that needs to change. We definitely have athletes that are capable of raising the bar, but often continue to operate in the comfort zone, rather than taking a risk to step up a level.

It is often the fear of failure that holds athletes back. It’s sometimes easier to continue to do what they are comfortable doing rather than extending themselves and testing the limits. 

Last week, at our other indoor facility, Athlone hosted a very credible international track meeting. This track has been available for athletes to use for training and racing since 2013, and I know is very well regarded by athletes who go there to compete each February, from as far away as Australia, Qatar and America.

Winning the men’s mile in Athlone was Ryan Gregson, one of the stars of the recent Nitro athletics series in Melbourne, who had just stepped off the plane three days before. Ryan has only ever run a handful of races on an indoor track, but he beat everyone on the night, including the best of the Irish. 

Again, it does make you wonder is it really about the facilities: it’s great to have them built but it was disappointing not to be able to provide even one Irish winner in any event in Athlone. 

What Athlone did provide was some exciting interaction between the Irish supporters in the stands and the athletes. Obviously an Irish winner would lift the event to even greater heights, maybe increase the coverage of the event beyond Athlone, open it up to a wider audience. 

Wider audience

Looking around Abbotstown last Sunday, it was almost all athletics people, and it’s a pity the event wasn’t opened to a wider audience. Again, it’s one thing to build the facility, but to get more people to come there is also a need to be more imaginative in how the events are staged, such as inviting in school groups, or juvenile athletic clubs, to get them engaged in the event and the sport. 

Athletics will always be one of our most traditional sports. But it also needs to move a bit more with the times, create a bit more of a drive to attract more participants and a wider audience. Every sport is saying that now, for fear of being left behind.   

The National Indoor Arena should present a great opportunity on both fronts: for our athletes to step outside their comfort zone to improve standards, and for spectators to come into the comfortable arena and engage with the sport. 

Either way, the lack of proper facilities can’t be used as an excuse anymore.

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