The Limerick Leader’s Health and Fitness columnist Peter Francis details the efforts our athletes have to make to even get to the Olympics.
Imagine you studied and worked hard to get your dream job but missed out because you were 100th of a second late for the interview? That’s exactly what our elite athletes in the race to even make the Olympic Games.
For the Irish public the London Olympics will be remembered for the exploits of Katie Taylor and our greatest medal haul since Melbourne in 1956.
However, for many athletes, coaches and support teams involved in high level sport across the country it will be tainted with a dose of frustration. Frequently during this Olympics public perception of elite sport has been warped by a lack of understanding of media pundits (unless previously involved in sport themselves of course).
A record medal haul contributed to mainly by a superbly organised high performance boxing system serves to paper over the gaping holes in Irish sport. Even now in the aftermath the media continue to draw futile comparisons between boxing and athletics/swimming/cycling while pointing fingers in all the wrong directions.
On at least three occasions over this Olympics I have heard Irish reporters ask the type of questions we are used to hearing the British media ask when England haven’t won the World Cup.
The difference being the average soccer player trains for half the hours of an Olympic athlete and has the comfort of circa €70,000 a week to soften the blow. The average Irish Olympian puts down 4-6 hours per day on circa €12,000 – 20,000 per year.
While it is disappointing to repeatedly hear reporters use the word “failure” in relation to some of the greatest athletes our country has ever produced. It is particularly difficult to watch national television when from the comfort of the studio the question is posed “So why did they bother coming to the Olympics if they were not 100%?”
Let me try and explain why. Four years ago, several families uprooted to move to Limerick in order for their sons and daughters to become part of the high performance swimming system in place at the University of Limerick. The swim squad arrives at the pool no later than 5.30am before finishing at just before 9am.
In the beginning this was followed by a full day’s schooling before training again between 3 – 6pm. This routine performed 50 weeks of the year on what I call the 50 metre treadmill is testament to the highest level of physical and mental toughness.
We’ve all heard of Grainne Murphy uprooting from Wexford to Limerick but Nuala Murphy and Andrew Meegan, two top-class swimmers, also moved from Dublin. These are an example of two who didn’t make it but are young enough to next time. Chris Bryan from Shannon also moved into a house with Nuala and Andrew and spread his sports science degree over six years to be able to train, he missed out on a photo finish for qualification.
Athletes such as the high performance swimmers, train single minded in pursuit of representing their country at an event that takes place once every four years. Many do not even qualify; some miss out by 100th of a second, four years’ work in vain. Imagine you studied and worked hard to get your dream job? Imagine you were 100th of a second late for the interview and someone else got the job? For those who do make it there is not great honour in the rest of their career unless they repeat the feat. But sure why would you bother if you weren’t going to be 100% on the day?
Many of our most promising athletes in athletics at the tender age of 18 take up a 4 year athletic scholarship. Most travel to America or more recently our own Dublin City University.
In a lot of these cases it is athletic scholarship which is the driving factor over choice of study. They return from a highly organised and well supported collegiate system at 22 years old to live on less than social welfare while trying to maximise their athletic potential. This transition can cause huge emotional turmoil.
The athlete who sits just outside Olympic level watches their friends push on with careers that will secure their futures while they get older trying to make an Olympic Games.
For the athlete that finally makes it, they come off the track at the back of a pack of Kenyans to be greeted by an RTE reporter with questions like “If you knew you weren’t right, why did you come?” The best answer I heard over the past two weeks was “it’s the Olympic Games, I wanted to come and represent Ireland” in a tone that suggested shock at the line of questioning.
So why can we do it in boxing and not anywhere else? Firstly the high performance program is a credit to all involved in Irish boxing and a model for other sports to follow, but crucially it is not the central reason for statistical difference in medal haul. The depth of participation in sports such as swimming and athletics globally is astronomical in comparison to boxing; in addition all athletes competing in these sports are full time professionals. Professional boxers are excluded from participating in the Olympics.
Boxing has multiple weight categories to accommodate for size and stature - in athletics there is one. Ireland has a population of 4.5 million which must compete with global sports such as soccer and rugby but also with our national GAA games.
The British invested €39 million in securing an infrastructure for track cycling success; the Irish sports council received €26 million last year to spread across 57 national governing bodies, 32 sports partnerships and 18 high performance sports. There is no doubt that countries similar in size and economic status have outperformed us in some of the mass participation sports but we should look to the big factors influencing this before worrying about reforming our associations and ripping our athletes apart with a litany of inaccuracies.
I have had the misfortune of watching some of our most respected media presenters and sports writers attempt this during this Olympics. There is no-one more than me agrees a major overhaul and reform is required for many of our associations to maximise our potential. But that is a debate for another day.
There are 6.6 billion people on the planet, the odds of an individual making the Olympic qualification are 636,000/1, and the odds of a gold medal 22million/1. There are so many things in our own lives we start but never finish.
That’s language Olympians just don’t understand and is the reason why among the thousands of competitors who paraded the opening ceremony, there really are no losers at all. Just winners without medals.