The annexing of gold medals at any track and field championship — even one as relatively minor as the European Indoors — is a significant event for a country Ireland’s size. However, Ireland’s success was dressed up by some as “a great weekend for Irish athletics” or, even more laughably, “a new golden era.” This is just plain wrong. Gillick’s achievement in the 400 meters was notable and inspiring and worth celebrating. Whenever any individual triumphs in a sport where the facilities he grows up with and trains in are risibly inadequate, it’s remarkable and laudable.
But that is only half the story. Apart from the fact Cragg is running under the tricolor as a flag of convenience, his victory had absolutely nothing to do with Irish track and field. Ireland’s very own Zola Budd, this South African didn’t even set foot in this country until last summer. He didn’t come through the Irish schools’ system, suffer from having inferior training facilities to his international colleagues, and then still prevail on the big stage. To try to pass this off as somehow a good thing for Irish track and field is just falsifying the record.
Cragg’s victory in the 3,000 meters was a tribute to his own talent, to the coaching he received from Mayo’s John McDonnell at the University of Arkansas, and to whatever he learned growing up in Johannesburg. It had nothing all to do with Ireland, the country of his grandparents. Notwithstanding once running for South Africa at a competition in Belfast, this is a guy who visited the Republic for the first time last summer, a few weeks before the Athens Olympics. He actually ran competitively in an Irish singlet before ever touching down in Dublin. Yet now, everybody thinks the sight of him draped in a tricolor on the track in Madrid is somehow comparable to Sonia in Sydney.
Cragg looks like an excellent runner with a real chance to shine over the next few years, but he is not Ireland’s runner. To pretend otherwise is fraud. Having said that, he deserves some praise for never having applied for the elite athlete grant for which he’s eligible from the Irish Sports Council. This shows the guy has enough class not to be milking the country.
The grants rows put what happened in Spain in stark perspective. By choosing to cut off anybody not considered a serious prospect for the Beijing Olympics, the ISC have nailed their colors to the mast. We can infer from this decision that they are not interested in supporting those who want to compete year-in, year-out at international level (often losing out to drug-enhanced competitors) unless they can seriously aspire to bringing home Olympic medals. It’s win-or-bust time for Irish sports.
So, then, admirable characters like James Nolan, Mark Carroll and Karen Shinkins, who have put their lives on hold for the honor (and honor isn’t something recognized by any bank manager) of competing for Ireland at the highest level of their sport, have basically been told not to bother anymore. Ireland is only interested in legitimate medal chances. The most cogent response to this appalling development came from Carroll.
“I understand that I’m getting a little older and slower, but I ran 7:46 twice indoors this season, so my career is far from over,” said Carroll, a graduate of Providence College. “A small country like ours, given our resources, we cannot expect a medal haul in the Olympics. Apart from Sonia, it was 20 and 30 years to our last medals. That’s the reality, so why are we gearing everything toward the Olympics?
“It’s 14 years since I went to America and what has changed here? Where’s the Olympic Training Center? Where are the altitude camps, warm-weather training camps? We’re given the money to try to work abroad, but, listen, forget about me. I’d be happy if I thought our junior team that won silver at the European cross-country championships was going to benefit from such things, but I just don’t see it.”
The point about Ireland’s lack of facilities is valid. These days, the only countries achieving Olympic success without spending massive amounts on its athletes are usually in the former Soviet Union. These are the nations where facilities from the era of huge state investment in sports still exist and can be exploited. In infrastructural terms, Ireland remains a half-century behind these places.
The ISC may think dropping the likes of Carroll from the grants list, and awarding