Saturday, 23 September 2017

International representation is an honour not a right

Athletes these days seem to think that representing a country on the international stage is a right, not an honour; something that they are entitled to do to the point that the country they represent is no longer important.

Dodgy selections by governing bodies, biases and the money associated with representation go some way to explain, if not justify, an individual seeking representation away from their country of birth, while centuries of migration, increased globalisation, marriage, and historical and geopolitical anomalies blur the lines of what exactly nationality is.

Different rules for different sports also complicate matters, things differ from country to country, that's for sure, and each individual's unique set of circumstances mean that it's often difficult to distinguish the black from the white on such matters. The question of one's nationality definitely isn't always clear-cut.

World class athletes from certain countries or regions - distance runners from East Africa, sprint hurdlers from the USA, rugby players from New Zealand, footballers from Brazil, table tennis players from China, cricketers from the Indian Sub-Continent, will find it close to impossible to make their national team, and you can't but feel for them. But we also can't lose sight of the fact that part of their outstanding ability is due to their being a product of the system (formal or informal) which produces so many other world class performers in their chosen discipline; they benefit every day from the raised bar such high standards and competition for places produces.

So a Kenyan distance runner, born in Kenya and training all their lives in Kenya will always be Kenyan, irrespective of who pays their bills. (Kenyan-born Vivian Jemutai, now known as Yasemin Can, summed the whole farce up nicely when she said in an interview after winning a European title for Turkey, that she "would also be very happy if I could earn gold for my home country Kenya one day."  Turkey, Barain, etc. appear to be a stepping stone to proper international representation it seems - some slap in the face for the not insignificant investment the Turkish government have undoubtedly put into her 'development'.

The Turks and Bahrainis are not the first to exploit the lax rules surrounding nationality, nor indeed the first to exploit the Africans, but that's a whole other story. In 2003 Commonwealth steeplechase champion Stephen Cherono of Kenya became Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar. Cherono was, at the time, the fastest in the world and his place in the Kenyan team was not in question. While initial rumours that he and fellow countryman Albert Chepkurui, who became Ahmad Hassan Abdullah, received $1 million for the switch were denied by the athletes, they did say that they were to receive $1000 per month for the rest of their lives. Cherono went on to win the 2003 and 2005 World Championships and break the world record for his adopted country. And all this from the comfort of his home in Iten, Kenya.

The IAAF, at the time, made an attempt to clamp down on the widescale purchase of athletes but, while Turkey and Bahrain have replaced Qatar as the world's leading market for surplus athletes, the problem remains, more than a decade on.

And that's before we go anywhere near Rugby or Cricket where it seems that you can just pinpoint a point on a map and, subject to demand, sign up for their 'national' team.


This August I was seated in the upper tier of the Olympic Stadium in London when the British men's sprint relay team received their World Championship medals. The atmosphere around me was electric. Everyone was on their feet, and, as the Union Jack was raised, even my mum, sitting beside me and relishing her first experience of live athletics at this level, was singing 'God Save the Queen' at the top of her voice.

I could see how such an occasion could raise goose bumps, and could even bring a tear to the eye, how the young hearts of Adam, Chijindu, Danny and Nethaneel must have been bursting with pride, honour and glory. They will, no doubt, have dreamed of this moment. Imagined it in their minds thousands of times. Replayed it over and over.

I could see how this was a moment to be cherished.

If you are British.

I, meanwhile, felt nothing.

This wasn't my flag, my country, my national anthem.

As someone who has never so much as tasted Guinness, who struggles to put together a sentence as Gaeilge, who never went to an Irish dancing class and who has never been to a GAA match, some might argue that on the scale of Irish patriotism I sit somewhere between the late Ian Paisley and the aforementioned God-saved Queen herself.

But I can't pretend to be something that I'm not. And despite spending half of my adult life in the UK, I am not (and never will be) anything but Irish.

And in that moment, the whole argument of national representation seemed crystal clear for me. If you're standing on the top step of that rostrum, the anthem of the country who's colours you're wearing blaring out over the Tannoy, and your heart is not bursting with pride, honour and glory, the hairs on the back of your neck are not standing to dutiful attention, then should you even be there? If there's a flag you'd prefer to see raised, a different country you aspire to represent, a nation you one day want to be good enough to compete for, have you missed the whole point of international sport?

Of course it's not that simple; it never is.

But representing a country should never be a question of convenience. Or indeed, money.

And it should never, ever be about entitlement. Because representing your country, wherever that might be, is an honour, not a right.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Eight Irish female athletes to follow this summer

With the cross country season long forgotten and track season already stuttering into life, it’s high time to highlight some of the Irish females to look out for this summer.

Another difficult summer lies ahead for the Irish athletes and medals on the world stage are more of a hope than an expectation. There is some degree of transition after last year’s Olympics, a disappointing indoor season will have dampened spirits, and, as ever, the injury list is far longer than anyone would like.  Having said that, some athletes are definitely in a position to build on a successful 2016, and the current crop of juniors is as exciting as ever, if not more so. There may even be a slight glimmer of hope in some of the field events!

In addition to the World Championships in London and the European Team Championships in Finland, the younger athletes will be aiming for European Youth Olympic Festival, European Junior Championships, European U23 Championships and World University Games qualification.
Here are just some of the names I’m looking forward to following in the coming months.

Fionnuala McCormack: The queen of cross

It’s on the grass that Fionnuala McCormack, the undisputed queen of Irish Cross Country, is at her most comfortable, and while she has represented Ireland in four different disciplines over three Olympic Games, her summer performances haven’t yet lived up to her winter promise. Fionnuala remains in that uncomfortable position between a competitive force - if not quite a world beater - on the track, and an emerging marathon runner oozing with potential. Despite her notable endurance background, she is remarkably under-raced on the roads and time-wise she hasn’t quite set the tar-mac alight with her rare efforts over the half and full marathon distances to date. What the Wicklow woman lacks in recordings against the clock, however, she more than makes up for with her championship record, and the fact that her best marathon so far came in the heat of Rio, suggests that fast personal bests are not everything.

But they do stand for something, and with that in mind, McCormack’s plan is to aim for the 10,000m qualifying time for London, and have a serious crack at a big city marathon in the Autumn. She, like those of us following her progress, know that faster times lie ahead.

Fionnuala’s 10,000m PB is 31:29.22 from 2012; her best last season was 31:30.74. She needs a time of 32:15.00 for London.  However, with four athletes breaking the 30 minute barrier in Rio, much faster will be required from the Wicklow woman if she hopes to feature come August. Her marathon PB of 2:31:22 has already earner her selection for London should she decide to contest the longer distance in the British capital.

Ciara Mageean: Carrying the weight of expectation

You always get the sense that the weight of public expectation rests lightly on Ciara Mageean’s shoulders and that her precocious talent is more of a motivation than a burden. Just as well since, as our one genuine potential female medallist on the world stage, she regularly carries the hopes of a nation.

On paper, the Irish team travelled to Amsterdam for the European Track Championships last summer with zero chances of a medal. They left the Netherlands with silverware thanks to McGeehan’s brilliance and grit. In hindsight, the bronze medal that she won in the 1500m was a disappointing result – a measure of her ability rather than a criticism of her effort. Reaching the semi-final of the Olympics was a further step to fulfilling her potential, but it was the world class time of 4:01.46 which she achieved in Paris at the end of last season that confirmed Mageean’s global medal potential.
The past indoor season didn’t go according to plan, and while images of Ciara hobbling off the track injured in Belgrade brought back memories of the Portaferry woman’s darkest days, it seems that her failure to finish at the European Indoor Championships was but a minor blip on the bumpy road to the top.

The World Championship qualification time in the metric mile is 4:07.50, something which should be but a formality for Ciara. Anything less than a place in the final will be a disappointment – both for Ciara and for those across Ireland willing her on. And once she’s in the final…

Christine McMahon: One lap wonder

Another to excel in Amsterdam last July was Christine McMahon who reached the semi-final of the 400m hurdles. The Ballymena and Antrim athlete chipped away at her personal best throughout a summer which also saw her graduate from Dentistry at Queen’s University Belfast, and she eventually got inside the Olympic qualifying time on 16th July, two days after the date by which performances needed to be recorded.

Unfortunately for McMahon, unlike Olympic qualification periods which cover two track seasons, times from last year won’t count towards London selection, and she must do it all again this year if she is to take her place on the startline in London. Fingers crossed the stars line up for her a little earlier this summer.

The qualifying time for London is 56.10. Christine’s best is 56:07. She is also eligible for the World University Championships where a time in the low 56’s would put her in contention for the medals.

Sarah Buggy: One step at a time

St Abban’s athlete Sarah Buggy hopped, stepped and jumped her way to number two on the Irish all-time list for the triple jump last summer, and the 23 year old’s best of 13.25 metres is within striking distance of Taneisha Scanlon’s Irish record (13.62). Sarah picked up where she left off in 2016 with a stellar indoor campaign. She again leaped to number two on the domestic indoor list, and got within 10 cm of Scanlon’s Irish indoor record.

Buggy is still some way off the standard required to compete on the world’s biggest stage, and the qualification standard for London, at 14.10 metres, may well be a stretch too far at this stage. But other international competition opportunities are well within her reach. The standard for August’s World University Games is 13.35. And there are those two Irish records to target in the near future.

The problem with talented field eventers in Ireland is not that they don’t exist, but that they exist in isolation. Buggy is a metre and a half ahead of everyone else at the moment. Wouldn’t now be a nice time to see the return of the long-injured Caoimhe King who has a best of 12.96m from 2014?

Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner: Barriers to be broken

Each year the hopes of an Irish woman finally breaking the two-minute barrier for the 800m are pinned on a different athlete. Rose-Anne Galligan, Laura Crowe, Ciara Everard and Ciara Mageean have all been pretenders to the throne, and while all these will be looking to continue the quest, Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner more than has her name pencilled in as Ireland’s next sub-2 challenger. The Villanova student has a current PB of 2:01.98 and improved her indoor best to 2:02.97 earlier this year. It would be nice, too, to see what the Dublin native can run for 1500m. Her best of 4:22.37 dates back to May 2013 and is surly due a major revision.

The all-important qualification times required for this summer’s championships are 2:01.00 for World Championships in London; 2:04.80 for European U23s and 2:04.30 for World University Games.

Shona Heaslip: Dancing her way into contension

Former Irish dancing champion Shona Heaslip must surely be the most exciting prospect on the domestic distance running scene. She recently glided her way to the Irish University 5000m title, and knocked a whopping 29 seconds from her personal best in the process. Given her relative youth in the sport, the big PB is not a surprise, but the ease and manner of her victory were particularly noteworthy. With the World University Games qualification already in the bag, the Kerry woman will look to get into some fast races in the coming months. Once she gets under the 16 minute mark - which must surely be but a formality - Shona can start to concentrate on adding senior track representation to her cross country cap from December.

The qualifying time for London - at 15:22.00 - is still some way off, and chasing it down is unlikely to be Heaslip’s priority this year, but by 2018 the 15:30 or thereabouts that’ll be required to make the European Championships should be well within her reach. Like all distance runners, remaining injury free will be her main challenge.

Phil Healey: From the depths of hell

The epic finale to the women’s 4 x 400m relay at last summer’s IUAA Intervarsity Championships catapulted Phil Healey into the public consciousness. Only her second ever run over 400m, the UCC graduate’s heroics not only earner her recognition thanks to that now legendary footage, but accelerated her transition to the longer sprint. Given her undoubted speed and the fact that her opening foray over 400m places her just outside the Irish all-time top 10, Healey could well be a future international star in the one-lap event.

Fully expect Healey to smash the 53.49 personal best she set indoors in February when the outdoor season gets into full swing. The target for World University Games is 53.30, though she already has the 23.70 qualifying time for the 200m in Taipei. The London qualifying times of 52.10 and 23.10 will be on her radar, but probably just out of reach.

Michaela Walsh: Throwing down the gauntlet

Michaela Walsh, a 2016 World Junior shot put finalist and a hammer finalist from the 2015 World Youth Championships, is Ireland’s most promising thrower since Elaine O’Keeffe. Walsh’s National Junior Record of 59.64 – set in March this year – may well be distant history by the time the 18 year old fully graduates to the senior ranks, and the Swinford AC athlete will surely have O’Keeffe’s impressive senior hammer record (73.21 metres) in her mind as she continues to rise through the ranks.

The European Junior Championships A qualifying standards are 60.00 metres for the hammer and 15.30 metres for the shot put, though Michaela already has the two required B standards in the latter event and a B standard in the hammer.

And then…

Elsewhere, I’m hoping that the rivalry between our three Olympic steeplechasers – injuries permitting – can put Roisin McGettigan’s nine-year-old Irish record under threat; I’m looking forward to seeing what the ever-improving Emma Mitchell can achieve as she aims for Commonwealth Games qualification; I’m excited about the prospects of the young sprinting trio of Ciara Neville, Gina Akpe-Moses and Sharlene Mawdsley, and I’m curious as to how Sommer Lecky – the future of Irish high jumping - and Elizabeth Morland – emerging multi-event starlet - can progress.

All in all, there’s lots of reason for hope. But imagine the sense of optimism there would be if Mary Cullen, Sarah Lavin, Ciara Everard, Jessie Barr, Laura Crowe, Rose-Anne Galligan, Claire Tarplee – to name just a few – had an injury-free season, and if more of our talented juniors stayed in the sport long enough to fulfil their senior potential.

As always, predictions like this can be woefully off the mark. The most memorable performances of the summer will, no doubt, be the ones that nobody could have seen coming.

And hopefully those omitted will be even more inspired to make their mark!

For those interested, the full selection criteria for this summer's championships can be found on the High Performance section of the Athletics Ireland website.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Doping in athletics breaks my heart, but ignoring doping damages it beyond repair

Recently, when people I’ve met through sport ask me what sport I used to compete in – a piercing dagger through the sporting heart of someone who still trains six times a week – I feel that they look at me disdainfully when athletics is my reply. One minute, in their mind, I’m a past sportsperson, a has-been, the next I’m an athlete in that filthy sport of track and field.

Ouch! The knockout blow!

But I can’t complain. I’ve long found it difficult to take certain sports seriously. As soon as someone tells me they’re a cyclist, or a weightlifter, or an MMA fighter, I become sceptical. I find it difficult to believe that there is a clean professional cyclist out there, that the gigantism change in the physique of rugby players in the professional era is all down to doing weights and eating protein, and that rowing, one of the hardest sports out there, is as clean as it’s made out to be.

In truth, I don't take track and field performances all that seriously myself. I watched very little of the athletics in Rio, and celebrated even less of it, choosing instead to spend the summer following domestic athletics action. And running a few races myself.

And when I see a relatively unknown distance runner, who lives in Spain and is engaged to a pro cyclist, knocking 83 seconds off her 10km personal best and in doing so qualifying for the Olympics, I find it difficult to believe.

And that is not her fault (presuming, as we should do, that she is innocent of any wrongdoing).

Nor is it mine.

This is what decades of doping, deceit and denial has done to our sport.

Russian scapegoats

Fortunately for Seb Coe, the IAAF, WADA, and all those who wish to portray the image that they are doing something about it, Russia’s luck finally ran out. The fact that harsh sanctions came seven years after seven Russian female athletes were suspended for allegedly switching their urine samples (out-of-competition samples collected in May 2007 did not match those provided by the same athletes at the World Championships in Osaka later that summer, something which wouldn’t have been able to happen under normal testing procedures) – indicates just how reluctant the authorities are to nip a problem in the bud.

While those watching the sport with open eyes were shouting ‘dirty cheating Russians’ at the TV, bribes were lining the pockets of those whose very job it was to run the sport, and delaying any serious action.

Along comes Seb Coe and, conveniently for him, but unfortunately almost a decade too late for the sport, it’s finally politically convenient to do something about the Russians.

Meanwhile, knowledgeable fans continue to shout ‘dirty rotten cheats’ at the TV, this time at the Turks, the Kenyans, the Jamaicans, the Ukrainians…

But it’s all ok. The Russians are not competing. And Seb Coe is cleaning up the sport.

That’s the same Seb Coe that in August 2015, before the true extent of Russian doping became public and just before he was elected as IAAF President, stated – in response to leaked blood data - that “The idea that my sport sat there either covering up wrongdoing or just being incompetent could not be wider of the mark.”

But that’s exactly what the sport has been doing for decades.

“We cannot be portrayed as a sport that is in any way dragging our heels,” added Coe.

But dragging their heels, they continue to do.

When will we finally admit that things are bad?

Paul McNamara, recently appointed as the new High Performance Director of Athletics Ireland, stated in an interview with Newstalk earlier this month that he thinks “our sport is cleaner than it has ever been before.”

Of course he did. That's what we're always being told. That’s the party line. London, too, was the cleanest Olympics ever. And look how that turned out!

In relation to the evolution of men’s 5000m and 10000m times, McNamara said "Arguably one could pick a date in 1995 that started the beginning of the EPO boom…. It changed the landscape and those performances skyrocketed for approximately 10 years to unfathomable levels. It’s dropped off drastically since. There’s an obvious reason for that.”

McNamara was, to be fair, arguing that it is again realistic for young Irish athletes to target success at a world level, which is, at the end of the day, his job. We’ll conveniently ignore our own doping record, that a number of our racewalkers continue to train in Spain with a convicted drug cheat, and the fact that some of our most successful distance athletes achieved their success right in the middle of that 10 year period.

But most importantly, we’ll ignore the fact that those comments came just a few days after a pair of Kenya females went through the first 10k of a half marathon in a mind-blowing 30:02 minutes - a new world record for the distance – before one of them brought the world record for the 21.1km distance under 65 minutes for the first time (and ironically made Radcliffe’s world marathon mark look much less of an outlier).

The women’s 10,000m final in Rio made the storylines of a whole range of Disney movies positively plausible by comparison. The recent World Cross Country Championships – while entertaining, engaging and inspiring as a spectacle – were preposterous on a performance level. The world records of those suspicious Chinese athletes continue to fall. And Gulnara Galkina’s untouchable world steeplechase record was finally smashed last summer, by a far inferior technician.

And that’s without the dirty cheating Russians.

The 1990s may well have been the time for EPO fuelled records on the men’s side, but we can hardly put the recent evolution of records on the women’s side purely down to improved training practices and increased opportunities for females.

The Ben Johnson effect

I’m far too young to remember Ben Johnson running in Seoul. But I am old enough to have watched the footage several times since. And I know that observers back then wouldn’t have needed a positive test result to know that he was drugged up to the eyeballs. But that’s easy to say in hindsight.

How many Ben Johnson-esque performances have I witnessed since? How many world records and Olympic wins will I look back on in 10 or 20 years’ time and say, “Why, yes, of course she was doping; anyone could see that”? How many of today’s too-good-to-be-true performances will, down the road, be just that?

And, of course, Ben Johnson wasn’t the only athlete cheating in that 100m final in 1988. He was just the one they most wanted to catch. He was the Russia of his day. Catch him and it looked like they cared about keeping the sport clean.

Can we believe any of what we see?

Are there any clean athletes out there?  Yes, of course there are. I am one. And while I realise that my achievements barely register as performances, I know that there are athletes who work harder, are far more talented and have better race heads than I do, so I know that there are athletes at a higher level than me training and competing clean. Of that I am sure.

But it’s impossible to say exactly what is clean and what isn’t. I’ve heard it argued that Linford Christie’s athletes are definitely clean, that such-and-such is too nice to dope, and that thing-a-me-bob was an outstanding junior and junior athletes just don’t dope. And all this while steroid use among the gym going public is at epidemic levels, EPO is freely available on the internet and amateur athletes, with nothing significant to gain are being caught by the apparently underfunded anti-doping authorities.

It’s dangerous to tar all athletes from a certain country, training set-up or sport with the one brush – I’d hate for my performances, no matter how menial, to be judged by the actions and hypocrisy of my fellow countrymen.

And we’ll probably never know just how many top athletes are doping.

But, what we do know is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!

It would be nice if those in charge of the sport finally acknowledged that.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

If you trample on my dreams, don’t be surprised when I stop dreaming

My earliest memory of the World Cross Country Championships was on March 21st 1992. I was sitting in the back of the Lada, along with my three brothers, on our way to visit Granny, as was normal for a Sunday afternoon. My mum, eager not to miss any significant sporting result, had the radio on, and news was coming through that Catriona McKiernan had won a silver medal in Boston. Her Irish teammate, Sonia O’Sullivan, had finished seventh.

I hadn’t even ran my first cross country race at that time – I still believed then that the lunchtime kickabouts with the boys in our small country primary school was going to catapult me to Wexford GAA stardom – but for some reason that news stuck with me. My memory may be romantically selective, but I can’t remember too many other sporting result from those days. Ok, so Italia ’90 was pretty big, the Wexford hurlers always seemed to lose, and Barry McGuigan won some significant boxing match very late one night. But apart from that, nothing.

I couldn’t have comprehended then what Catriona or Sonia had just achieved, nor could I have imagined the success that lay ahead for them both. Still, something told me that we were punching well above our weight on the world cross country running scene.

Women participating and achieving in sport had already been normalised for me about two decades before I became aware that there are barriers preventing females from competing in competitive sport. And, more importantly, when I started running 10 months later, I had something to aspire to.

Who’s apathy?

The World Cross Country Championships will take place tomorrow in Kampala, Uganda, and there won’t be a single Irish representative at the event. Despite our women’s team finishing fifth four years ago in Poland and winning European team bronze medals twice since, the 2017 edition of the world’s greatest distance race never seemed to register on the Athletics Ireland radar.

The apathy of the athletes will of course be blamed, but the problem is bigger than that. The lack of commitment to send athletes to this event was so great that the Athletics Ireland selection policy document – which appeared on the High Performance section of the governing body’s website as an afterthought some time in December – contains the incorrect distances for the senior race.

With other competitive opportunities available to athletes, selection criteria along the lines of ‘we’ll send you if we think you’re good enough’ does nothing to secure their commitment. And with the bar for good enough being so high (top 20) that only two-time European Champion Fionnuala McCormack has surpassed it since 2005, is it any wonder that athletes fail to set their sights on the event? 2013 was the only time since 2008 that a scoring team, in any category, was sent. Indeed Ireland have only sent a full senior women’s team three times since they last medalled in 2002; that’s less than a handful of times in the memories of the very athletes we’d be expecting to make this their dream!


While the World Cross Country Championships has long been a precarious dream for the Irish distance runner, the rapid, downward spiral of British interest can be pinpointed to a single monumental selection error in 2010. Despite a similarly vague selection policy to the one seemingly adopted by the Irish and an uncertainty over what exactly needed to be achieved, athletes went into the trial event that year full of hope. The top three in the senior men’s race – Mo Farah and Andy Vernon, along with Mumin Gala, who was not eligible for selection – were well ahead of the field. Mike Skinner followed. Next came a large group of talent, young and old, in an exciting and ever-changing battle for the remaining places in the top six. Phil Hinch, James Walsh, and a 19 year old James Wilkinson eventually out smarted and out ran their rivals, putting themselves in prime position for selection.

Three days later Hinch and Walsh learned that they were not included in the team. They didn’t receive so much as a phonecall to inform them that only Farah, Vernon, Skinner and Wilkinson would be sent to Poland. In summary, they were too old and had not yet achieved enough in the sport to be part of the team.

There went Hinchie’s lifetime dream, and along with it the dreams and aspirations of those who looked on in admiration as the hard work finally looked to be paying dividends for the 31 year old.

Britain will have no representatives in the senior men’s race tomorrow.

It’s not the taking part, it’s the winning that counts

Many ‘experts’ within British and Irish athletics believe that it’s impossible for Europeans to be competitive at this event any longer; that if you’re not going to be at the head of the field then there’s no point in competing, and, most worryingly, that if black people are dominating a world championship, then something needs to be done at a global level to ‘fix’ it.  

If a young Irish athlete happens to be watching the World Championships tomorrow, like I once did, and fails to be inspired or motivated by it, it won’t be because the kids at the front are black, or because the Irish athletes are not high enough to be competitive. It’ll be because the complete lack of Irish representatives suggest that they may never get the opportunity to take on those young men and women from East Africa; because they’ll have been constantly told that this isn’t an event that they should aspire to; and because they’ll be disillusioned to death with the uninspiring, poorly informed commentary which feeds the vicious circle that has become European interest (or disinterest) in World Cross Country, at every available opportunity.

I never achieved my dream of racing at the World Cross Country Championships, but at least I had, for a while, the opportunity to try. Let's ensure that future generations do too.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Uganda is not on Mars

If recent history has taught us anything, it has taught us that many Britons have an egocentric and egotistical view of the world; a view that London is the centre of the universe and that they get to choose how globalism works. Nowhere is that egocentrism more evident than in those lamenting the demise of the World Cross Country Championships and blaming that demise almost purely on the selection of ‘obscure’ venues, outside the UK, for recent editions of the world’s most competitive distance race.

In just 10 days time the global cross country championships will be held in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, a destination BBC pundit Paula Radcliffe would have you believe – if her commentary at the recent European Cross Country Championships is anything to go by – is on Mars. Kampala is, in fact, located a short drive from Entebbe Airport, a substantial international airport that can be reached overnight from the UK. As it turns out Kampala is easier to get to than Iten, Kenya, where many British athletes have been training this winter. And last winter. And the winter before. And the winter before that...

Among the other locations British Eurosport commentator Tim Hutchings – these populous opinions are not confined to those who work for the national broadcaster – recently cited as ‘obscure’ in an article on the topic in Athletics Weekly were Kenya, Poland, China and Jordan.

That’s not obscure, that’s global! And these are, after all, the world championships.

Indeed, with the next edition of the World T&F Championships (London 2017), World Indoor Championships (Birmingham 2018) and European Indoor Championships (Glasgow 2019) all scheduled for Britain, it's nice to see a little bit of diversity.

The arguments don’t stack up

Not only does the lamenting of Radcliffe, Hutchings and others show their very limited world view, their argument that placing the cross country championships outside of Europe has a detrimental effect on participation are not backed up by the facts.

Numbers have obviously declined since the short course championships were scrapped in 2006, and will never return to the numbers seen before the introduction of the shorter races when men’s teams could run nine athletes (with six to score), compared to six (with four to score) these days.

Half the last 10 editions of the championships have been held in Europe, with Asia hosting three championships, and Africa two. If we take the 2007, 2008 and 2009 events – the last time three consecutive championships were held on different continents – as a sample, we’ll notice that the European event, held in Edinburgh, actually had lower participant numbers than Mombassa the previous year and Amman the following year. Yes, the differences are marginal, but the common opinion would have you thinking that all roads lead to Britain only.

2007 Mombassa (Kenya) 63 countries 470 participants
2008 Edinburgh (UK) 57 countries 446 participants
2009 Amman (Jordan) 59 countries 461 participants

And the argument that athletes are not willing to travel as it causes too much disruption to their training doesn't really make sense either. Some athletes were more than willing to recently travel to Australia for a series of events which have zero performance outcomes for them. Nobody turned down their Olympic place because of the travel involved. There will be no shortage of athletes willing to travel to the Bahamas later this year for the World Relay Challenge. And athletes regularly travel to the US for high profile road races, often competing at home and stateside in the same week.

Travel does not appear to be a problem.

Not without their distance-running tradition

If we believe that the Kenyans and Ethiopians are genetically gifted, geographically advantaged, socially motivated and culturally predisposed to distance running success, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Ugandans, who share many of those geographical, social and cultural attributes with their Rift Valley neighbours, have also experienced distance running success on the world stage.

And we’re not talking about success built on athletes being bought from Kenya or Ethiopia here – no, Uganda has some real home-grown talent.

But it wasn’t at the distance events that Uganda first achieved success. John Akii Bua, the 1972 Olympic 400m hurdles champion, is probably the country’s most famous champion. The Malcolm Arnold-coached athlete won the Munich final in a new world record from lane one to become Africa’s first Olympic gold medallist at a distance shorter than 800m, and Uganda’s first global medallist.

Political events at home and abroad blighted the rest of Akii Bua’s career. Uganda, along with most of Africa, boycotted the 1972 Games, meaning that John never got to defend his Olympic title or be part of the much anticipated showdown with Edwin Moses, the US athlete who went on the dominate the event for more than a decade. Meanwhile, back home, political instability made training difficult, and under the reign of dictator Idi Amin, Akii Bua fled to Kenya where he ended up in a refugee camp before being ‘rescued’ by Puma, his shoe sponsor. He never returned to his former level, and the decades of dictatorships, tribal massacres, human rights violations and general political upheaval that followed meant that Ugandan sport never benefited from the legacy of his Olympic win. It took until 1996 for David Kamoga to double Uganda’s Olympic medal tally. Kamoga finished third to Michael Johnson and Rodger Black in the 400m at the Atlanta Games.

Ugandan success in more recent years has come in the longer distances. Stephen Kiprotich, who won the marathon at both the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2013 World Championships, and Moses Ndiema Kipsiro, 2007 World 5000m champion, triple Commonwealth Games champion and two-time World Senior Cross Country Championship medallist, have been leading the way over the last decade.

Boniface Kiprop won the 2006 Commonwealth Games 10,000m title and is a former world junior record holder at the distance. Dorcus Inzikuru won the inaugural women’s 3000m steeplechase title in 2005. And Solomon Mutai won marathon bronze at the 2015 World Championships.

Ugandans have won 19 medals at the World Cross Country Championships (7 individual medals and 12 team medals), more than Britain, the so-called home of cross country, has managed in a much longer period of involvement. Indeed, only Kenya and Ethiopia have won more medals in the event this century!

Not bad for a country that ‘doesn’t understand cross country.’

Moses Kipsiro (right) on his way to individual silver in the senior men's race at the World Cross Country Championships in Amman, Jordan in 2009.

Rumours and accusations; not all rosy

In the corrupt and often vile world of performance sport, Ugandan athletics is not without its controversy. Accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour against Ugandan Coach Peter Wemali first surfaced in 2014. Members of the national team alleged that he had sexually harassed them during a training camp. The Kenyan-born Wemali allegedly told the athletes that they could run like their East African counterparts if they got pregnant and had terminations at three months. Wemali would ‘kindly’ be the one to impregnate them.

The teenage alleged victims had confided in Kipsiro, the team captain for the event, who asked the Ugandan Athletics Federation (UAF) to fire Wemali. The national governing body instead dropped Kipsiro from the national team for the 2014 World Half Marathon Championships and later cleared Wemali of any wrongdoing, stating that there was no evidence of sexual abuse involving the coach during the said time period, though they did suspend him.

That was not the end of the matter though. Wemali was arrested in April 2015 after three other girls came forward accusing him of rape (later adjusted by the prosecution to aggravated defilement) and infecting them with HIV. While Wemali was in custody for those charges, another three girls, who had been impregnated by the former police coach over the previous five years, came forward.

Meanwhile, Kipsiro revealed that he received death threats, and feared that he may have to flee the country as a result, he believed, of raising the original allegations.

The internet has no news of Wemali or the case against him since mid-August 2015, when his court appearance was delayed for a second time.

One hopes that things haven’t gone quite to avoid the bad publicity around the case detracting from the success of the upcoming championships. The girls of Uganda deserve better than that.

A much deeper problem

It would appear that the ‘obscure’ locations chosed are not necessarily the choice of the IAAF; often it appears they are genuinely the best of the applications received (though I’m not sure how much effort the IAAF puts into encouraging suitable venues to apply). When Kamplala won their bid to host the 2017 event, their sole opposition for the honour was Manama (Bahrain). Although Hammamet (Tunisia) also submitted an expression of interest to host the 2019 edition, only Aarhus (Denmark) formally bid for the event. Similarly, Guiyang (China) was the only venue to bid for the 2015 event. The problem, it would seem, is far deeper than just the selection of host venues.

While Kampala may have been the best of a pair of applications, it must be pointed out that one of the selling points in Uganda’s original bid was the assurance that the proposed National High Altitude Training Centre in Teryet, Kapchorwa District would be completed and available for pre-championship training.

Almost three years later and nearly seven years since President Museveni pledged full government funding for the project, the training centre is still far from completed. Although a substantial amount of compensation has been paid to land owners at the proposed site, phase 1 building has not even started.

Such slow progress is not unusual in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, but the good news is that the course at the Kololo Ceremonial Grounds, where the 42nd edition of the World’s greatest cross country race will be held, recently hosted the Ugandan trials and it will be ready to welcome participants from as far away as Fiji on 26th March.

We can choose to be there, or to be left out.

And so…

So if you’re unhappy that the World Cross Country Championships will be in Kampala in a few weeks, be unhappy because of Uganda’s failure to protect their female athletes and those who stand up for their justice. Be unhappy because you’ve watched The Last King of Scotland and are still angry at what Idi Amin did to his country. Be unhappy because there is still no anti-doping laboratory in East Africa and because the East African authorities consistently fail to address their doping and corruption issues.

But don’t be unhappy just because the championships is not on your doorstep. You might not have gone anyway.

And don’t forget - and this by no means makes it right - that doping, child sexual abuse, corruption and dictatorship are not unique to Africa.

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s taught us that.

Of course many Brits can see the world beyond the shores of their own great nation, and many have a very open view of the world. Likewise, there are many outside of the UK - in Ireland and elsewhere - with a very limited view of the world. This article is by no means intended to categorise or insult individuals based on nationality. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm making my own attempt at being sensationalist to get a point across. I'd like to think that the reader can take that aspect of the article in the tongue-in-cheek way in which it was intended.

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Art of Cross Country

You could say that cross country is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get next. And that’s the beauty of it.

One week you’re floating over a perfectly dry, pancake flat course, the next you’re struggling up hills and through mud, running into that sort of horizontal wind and rain that seems to save itself for race day.

Often the same venue can throw up completely different experiences two weekends in a row, just to keep things interesting.

At a track race, the smallest unexpected detail - an outside waterjump, finishing in the back straight, no lap times being called out, 30 minute call ups, an official reminding you (still without a valid reason why) to tuck in your singlet, wider than normal bends, flowers in front of the water jump, toilets without toilet paper - can mess with the mind, and cause already simmering pre-race anxieties to boil over.

But at cross country, anything goes.

Hell toilets, never mind toilet paper, are an unexpected luxury!

Cross country is an art form

Summer will be soon enough for carefully timed warm-up routines, racing the clock, analysing progress, cursing headwinds, pollen counts and humidity (often all on the one day) and, when everything goes according to plan, sitting and kicking. Summer will be for formulas and for measuring.

Winter is for conquering hills, measuring performance purely by how much (or little) you had left in the tank, and gently smiling to yourself when, on the last lap, you finally work out the best route through that energy-sapping muddy patch. And if you think you’re going to just sit and kick, you’ll not just risk the result you hoped for, but also much of the fun.

It’s the lack of lap times, kilometre markers, and any form of measurement other than finishing position that makes cross country so enjoyable.

Winter is when the science of running gives way to the art of running!

Twenty-three years of experience

Twenty-three seasons of running cross country has taken me to 22 of Ireland’s beautiful counties, across much of England and Scotland, and occasionally to mainland Europe; it’s swallowed two of my spikes, never to be seen again; it’s taken a toe nail; and it’s blocked up my parent’s bathroom sink on numerous occasions.

My memories of running in the early days are dominated by images of four or five of us cramming into my mum’s less than reliable car, carefully placing school books into the back window – where they would inevitably remain for the weekend – and heading to the brown fields of Claremorris, Cavan or Stranorlar.

Sometimes we’d have had accommodation booked in advance, more often than not we didn’t, but we’d always hope that wherever we ended up staying the night before a race would also happen to accommodate some young male runners from Cork or Donegal or Belfast, or such exotic lands.

And we’d laugh a lot. Those weekends were full of laughter.

And now…

And despite those wonderful memories, I’ve probably enjoyed cross country more in the past year or two than I ever have. And I plan to continue to do so for a few years yet.

On the good days I’m reminded how much I enjoy it. How fresh, wet mud doesn’t actually hurt, how much enjoyment can be gained from simply reaching the top of a hill, and how, even on the days when I’m the only one from my club or county, this is a team sport. We are all in this together.

And on the bad days I’m reminded how wet socks and hardened mud don’t make for a pleasant journey home.

At last season’s English National, I spent the final kilometre of a gruelling race, where the main challenge was simply staying upright, locked in battle with a fellow mud warrior. We ran together for a while, then I got dropped only to come back on the next muddy patch where I went past my rival, she rallied and dropped me, and then, in the final metres, I came past her one final time. No words were spoken when we crossed the line. We simply turned to each other, shook hands and laughed. We’d both scraped into the top 60!

Like any other form of art, not every race is going to be a masterpiece. You make a big deal of the good runs, mentally recreating them on an almost daily basis, and remind yourself that the bad results don’t matter. And on the bad days, as well as the good, you’re allowed to laugh.

Occasionally people ask me why I still do it. For me it’s simple. My Mona Lisa may have been created nearly fifteen years ago, but there are still goals to achieve. And I’d like to think that, like da Vinci, I have more than one great painting in me.

And I’ve never raced in Wicklow. I’d like to race in Wicklow!


A small bit of artistic license has been used in writing this piece. My mum’s car only broke down on two occasions, there may have been a small bit of green in Cavan before we started, and though I’ve pulled quite a bit of grass and mud from the plughole, I’ve never actually blocked the sink.

And occasionally, just occasionally, you know you’ve ran well, not by how far over you’re bent or how long it takes to catch your breath, but by how easy it felt; because truly great artwork appears to be created effortlessly.

I first published this piece on in December 2015, but it's probably more relevant here than on a blog about altitude training.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Sexed-up, watered-down events isn't what the regular athletics fan wants

There’s been much debate in recent times about the coverage of athletics and what can be done, with the sport becoming ever more tainted by doping revelations, to attract and maintain the fans that will ultimately keep the track and field show on the road.

At the moment there’s a Rift Valley-sized gulf between the let’s-see-how-many-under-informed-past-athletes-looking-for-something-to-do-with-the-rest-of-their-lives-we-can-manage-to-fit-on-one-panel-giving-their-opinions-on-Justin-Gatlin-and-Russia approach that broadcasters blindly employ (and which may well work with the sometimes follower filling a gap between football and rugby coverage on a Sunday afternoon), and what the real fans desire. Patronised and marginalised by the bereft lack of knowledge of commentators, the same clich├ęs being rolled out at every opportunity, and the uncomfortable shuffling of pundits when asked to pass comment on anything other than their specialist event, many regular athletics fans prefer to watch TV coverage with the volume muted and spend the punditry/interview sections (otherwise known as potential prime field event time) playing along with the latest Twitter challenge set by @smokymozzarella and her fellow ‘athleticos’ (#madeupmarathonfacts and #chocolateathletes are personal favourites).

The powers that be are constantly tampering with the sport, looking at ways to make it more attractive, adding new, more innovative events, talking about making it sexier, holding international matches which at the end of the day hold no weight whatsoever, and longing for it to be more like rugby or football.

Athletics doesn’t need to be tampered with or sexed-up to make it watchable.  If 5 days of cricket is watchable, then surely 25 laps of the track, lasting less than 30 minutes, often undecided before the final 400m, shouldn’t be that difficult to sell. And one of its main selling points, surely, it that it isn't rugby or football.

The solution is actually quite simply.  Instead of depending on past stars depending on their ‘inside’ knowledge from 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years ago to provide irrelevant, predictable background noise to the unfolding drama, simply employ commentators with an in-depth knowledge of the sport, who are willing to do some research since the last event they covered (which is hopefully more recent than the last Olympics, four years ago), who are willing to learn the name of at least one non-white female steeplechaser, and who are, how shall I put this, actually willing to commentate.

This blog, conveniently, provides one final excuse to share my favourite 4 minutes of athletics footage from 2016 – yes I’m talking about Phil Healy, Cathal Dennehy et al., and THAT video. And I say 4 minutes because, while the final lap of that Irish University (IUAA) Championship 4x400m relay final is undoubtedly noteworthy in isolation, it is the entire race, and commentary, which perfectly encapsulates everything that is good about the sport (and particularly special about the 4-lap relay), and shows us what athletics commentary could be.

Many of the contenders to the fore at the various points in that now famous race get a mention, along with some anecdote or another or, when no fact or corny pun is immediately available, a light-hearted pondering of the question at the forefront of every paty-going athlete’s mind: heels or flats later? All this adds colour and anticipation to the biggest sporting crescendo of the year, and demonstrates that Cathal and Ronan either had a decent knowledge of the athletes competing, or had actually bothered to acquire a start list.

The commentary, like Phil Healey’s run, was raw, and while the lads benefited from the informal, nothing-to-lose nature of live streaming, such a moment would have been missed by Foster who would, no doubt, have been busily reminiscing about the great Kip Kieno, or by Hutchings fanaticising over Emma Coburn (future Olympic opposition of Healy’s Depths of Hell co-star Michelle Finn - don’t worry he’d have found a way to include his favourite steeplechaser).

And, should the need to fill 10 minutes of airtime discussing annoying cross country obstacles have arisen, Dennehy or Duggan would, I hope, have known the difference between a bale of hay and a bale of straw.

No, the sport itself does not need to be sexed up. Afterall, if golden-tanned, broad-shouldered men launching their spears to the opposite end of the oval, or tall leggy blonds provocatively shaking sand from their knicker-shorts doesn’t do it for you, then there’s no hope. Athletics is, already, the sexiest sport of them all, performed by some of the finest physical specimens the human race has to offer.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s the commentary that needs refreshing.

And so, I appeal to those responsible for bringing athletics coverage to a wider audience: take a leap of faith. Employ someone - with our without an Olympic medal or world record of their own - who has some real, actual knowledge of the athletes competing and who still possesses the drive and passion to learn about the new and emerging stars. Someone who knows that there is more to the sport than Usain Bolt and his untouchability and Mo Farah and that gimmick Mo-bot. Someone who, while willing to acknowledge that Justin Gatlin and the Russians don’t have a monopoly on doping offences, still believes that athletics, with its broad variety and narrow gender gap, is the greatest sport on earth. Someone who has something to tell me, a regular fan of the sport, that I didn’t already know.

Someone who doesn't witter on about 'back in our day.'