Sonia O’Sullivan: Do marathon runners a favour and select for Rio now
With Olympics around corner, it is essential endurance athletes get to tailor their training
Paul Pollock finished 14th in the World Half Marathon Championships. Photograph: James Veale/Sportsfile
Every day brings the Rio Olympics that bit closer, and competition for places on the Irish team is cooking up nicely. In the case of the marathon selection, the heat needs to be reduced sooner rather than later.
It didn’t get much coverage, but the World Half Marathon Championships, staged in Cardiff last weekend, provided a good taste of what’s coming. Paul Pollock was the best of the Irish men, running a very credible 62:46 to finish in 14th place.
Taking into account the difficult conditions, Pollock showed his ability to compete on the world stage. Right now, however, Pollock is only the fourth fastest of the eight Irish men with the qualifying time for the Rio Olympic marathon, where each country is limited to three athletes. It’s a nice luxury to have.
Around 2009, when Irish marathon running was at a low, the Marathon Mission group was set up, with the backing of the Dublin Marathon, to help increase the number of Irish qualifiers for major championships. We’re seeing the fruits of that now.
That’s been helped by the more readily attainable qualifying standards: 2:19 for the men and 2:45 for the women. Some people view these standards as a little ‘soft’, but I think it’s a good thing. It encourages more athletes to believe they can qualify. The more athletes we have at a decent standard, the more it will push the better men and women to run even faster.
We’ve seen that with the men and women that have qualified for the Rio marathon. In the case of the men, the top four are within 45 seconds of each other and it will take knowledgeable selectors, with proper foresight, to select the best team of three.
There are now just over four months to Rio, and based on his weekend performance I would pick Pollock for the team right now. He’s scheduled to run the London Marathon on April 24th to improve his chances of selection, essentially by becoming one of the three fastest qualifiers.
But Pollock has proven his pedigree before (he was 21st in 2013 World Championship marathon) and he would certainly benefit from being named on the team now, so that he can focus on Rio and not waste time training in unknown territory.
It makes much more sense for endurance events to have early selections, so that the athletes are not tempted to try to prove themselves, or burn themselves out before a major event. Why keep looking in the oven? Athletes risk spoiling their entire preparation, when they could be tailoring their training and races for the Olympics.
As things stand, Athletics Ireland has set May 23rd as their deadline for marathon qualification, leaving those selected with just two-and-a-half months of properly focused preparation for Rio. Of course, in early selection there must be indicators along the way to prove fitness, and the perfect event for this is the half marathon event that is now part of this summer’s European Championships in Amsterdam, set for early July.
The women’s marathon team is also expected to have the full Irish quota in Rio, with five women already qualified. Again I would look at some early selections: Fionnuala McCormack and Lizzie Lee are on track with their recent half marathon performances and likewise should be given a clear pathway to prepare for the Olympics, rather than sitting in the holding zone.
Earlier this month, McCormack ran a personal best of 70:44, finishing fourth at the New York half marathon, while Lee ran a respective 75:32 in Cardiff, a season best, again in difficult conditions. The only pity is that there weren’t other Irish women in Cardiff to measure up against Lee, who has the fastest Irish marathon qualifier time of 2:32:51.
When selecting from a large number of qualified athletes, the key consideration is the high performance end of the sport; it can’t be in any way personal, but must be based solely on which athlete is going to deliver the best possible result for Ireland.
Of course, Pollock, McCormack and Lee will also need to be fit to compete, but in my mind it doesn’t make sense to wait, particularly when we have athletes with the proven ability over the distance – athletes who would benefit mentally from knowing they are in.
In my experience, once you’re selected for a major championship, the whole process is so much easier; everyday is a day closer to your goal and the reason for every session, run and recovery session is magnified in intensity and importance, because it is bringing you closer to achieving your ultimate goal.
The US, for example, had their Olympic marathon trials in the middle of February, where their selection is perfectly clear cut: the first three men and women were automatically selected (provided they have the qualifying time). No excuses, no exceptions. It can be a little harsh, but at least those selected don’t have to take any more risks to prove themselves.
The London Marathon will be the trial for the British team, and while there is still the time for some new Irish qualifiers, it shouldn’t change what we already know will be our best three men and women for an Olympics where we will have a full quota of marathon qualifiers for the first time in our history.
That’s not saying there is such a thing as the perfect Olympic selection policy. This weekend, Australia will be hosting their Olympic track and field trials in Sydney, and athletes will need to be prepared to perform at their best in order to qualify for the team, then reproduce that form again next August.
This is very a difficult selection process, based on the fact there are opposite seasons in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Australian summer athletics season is now approaching its climax. That brings on the heat in a different sense, considering the rest of the world is just coming out of winter training.