Category: Archive

Mr. Clean

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Treacy, the Irish Sports Council’s chief executive, pointed out that it was just a few years since that body set up its international carding program to support the country’s most talented athletes.
He might have added that when he won his silver in Los Angeles in 1984, few people under 35 could have remembered the previous time an Irish athlete claimed a track and field medal in an Olympic stadium. Treacy himself was born the year after Ronnie Delaney took gold in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
“People need to be realistic. We shouldn’t expect miracles,” he said in an interview before Christmas.
Not that Treacy and his colleagues on the Sports Council aren’t disappointed that Ireland didn’t follow up on Sonia O’Sullivan’s 5000-meter Olympic silver in 2000. But, naturally, they’d rather accentuate the positive and point to the achievements made by sportsmen and sportswomen from an island with just 5.5 million people and to the greater optimism and confidence generally found now in Irish sport.
The GAA, for instance, is as strong as ever at home, proud of its new Croke Park, while Ireland’s elite golfers compete at the top level internationally.
“The soccer team and the rugby team are doing extremely well at a world level,” Treacy said. “And the development of Lansdowne Road is an exciting project.”
The higher expectations of fans hungry for more success was one factor that led to the establishment in 1999 of the Irish Sports Council as a statutory agency responsible for all aspects of sports in Ireland. It was a move particularly welcomed by those active in sports, some pointing out that the Arts Council was founded back in 1952.
Treacy had the perfect resume to lead the new agency in terms of his athletic experience — at junior, college and world-class levels — his academic qualifications and his commitment to public service.
It particularly helps that he can relate to the athletes coming up through the ranks. “I do understand how hard they work and the issues they face on a daily basis,” he said.
When Treacy was a teenager, several major U.S. colleges came calling on his Villierstown, Co. Waterford, home, offering him an athletic scholarship. In 1974, he opted for Providence College in Rhode Island, where he eventually obtained a BS in accounting and an MBA. (Nowadays, his brother Ray is a successful athletics coach at the college.)
Treacy first emerged, though, as a major athlete in 1978 when he won the World Cross Country Championship in Edinburgh. His retention of the coveted title the following year in Limerick in front of tens of thousands of ecstatic, rain-drenched fans provided one of the great emotional highs ever in Irish sporting history.
However, the Waterford man always saw himself as a track athlete primarily. He was bitterly disappointed with his ninth place in the 10,000 meters final in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Five days later, he won the silver medal in the first marathon he ever ran.
He regards the Olympic medal as the crowning achievement of his career. “That’s the ultimate for a track and field athlete,” he said.
“I’ve vivid memories of the build-up and of the race itself,” Treacy said. “And, of course, I get to see it on television now and then.”
He recalled that he was in the leading group at a crucial point; then Carlos Lopes of Portugal made his decisive move and couldn’t be caught. Treacy and Charlie Spedding of Britain detached themselves from the group, too.
“Charlie and myself were left fighting it out for the silver medal. We’d known each other for a long time, and we knew if we stayed together that we’d both get a medal,” he said.
The Irishman turned out to have a little more speed in the stadium.
“The first feeling I had when I finished the race was one of relief. A huge sense of relief. Because I knew I was capable of doing it,” he said.
Treacy continued as a professional athlete for another 10 years in the United States. He returned to Los Angeles to win the city’s marathon in 1992 and he won the Dublin marathon in 1994, the year he put down roots in Ireland with his wife, Fionnuala, and their four children.
Treacy the runner had an awkward gait and his pained expression seemed to suggest that his success was based mainly on will power; all of this tended to obscure his prodigious talent.
His admirers believe there are parallels with his current work. The quiet-spoken ex-athlete is neither glib nor smooth. And the Irish public tends to associate him with integrity and decency in sport, but that can mask his effectiveness.
Former international soccer star Niall Quinn said that Treacy has earned enormous respect in sporting circles for what he’s achieved with the Council.
“He was a very successful runner and had determination, drive and passion, as all world-class athletes have,” Quinn, a member of the council, said. “Well, he needed those qualities and a few more to lead some major changes in Irish sport.
“A lot of attention is given to the more public controversies, but that ignores the great work that’s being done at grassroots level all over the country.”
The most important controversy in sport these days concerns drugs.
Treacy said: “If you believe in clean sport, then you must live with the fallout from effective anti-doping programs.”
He said the World Anti-Doping Agency is proving an effective global body.
“Some of the stories you’re hearing about, for instance, the recent revelations in the States in baseball and in track and field, are the result of the new era since WADA was set up,” he said.
“I view those as positive things, helping to spread awareness that this is not acceptable behavior.”
He added: “A lot of things happened in the 1980s and ’90s that were never revealed.
“If people make a decision to cheat, we can’t stop them, but what we have to do is catch them. We were successful prior to the Games in the case of Cathal Lombard.
“One view is that we should just accept the use of drugs and not bother to fight. Well, that forgets that sport should be fair, played within the rules and true to its own values.”
Treacy added that the view also ignores the public health aspect, as the drugs can be damaging to the athletes themselves.
Referring to showjumper Cian O’Connor’s tainted gold medal, he said: “It’s a process that has to be completed, but it’s very disappointing. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”
Meanwhile, work goes on at the local level. The Council has established local sports partnerships, which Treacy described as mini-sports councils, operating at a county level.
“We provide them with sports programs, for example Buntus, which is aimed at primary school children,” he said. “The concept is to give them a quality introduction to sport that offers a better chance of a lifetime relationship with sports for all children regardless of degree of skill or ability.
“We fund, also, the participation programs of the GAA, the FAI and the IRFU. They target young people, often in disadvantaged communities.”
Sports may be the agency’s main focus, but the health and well-being of a population in which one in five are sedentary is an important broader goal.
All of Treacy’s children are active to some degree in sports. His daughters, who are 22 and 19, jog recreationally. His 16- and 15-year-old sons are involved with soccer, rugby and hockey.
The former Olympian himself runs five miles four times a week and plays golf on Saturdays and Sunday.
Recently, he accepted an invitation to run again in the Manchester Road Race in New Hampshire, a once tiny event he helped put on the map when he was a fresh-faced world champion.
“It’s extremely well-managed and -organized. They raise substantial money for charities in the greater Manchester area,” he said.
Treacy spent an aggregate of 17 years based in New England, the last 11 of them in East Greenwich, R.I.
“This year we visited our great friends and neighbors there on Thanksgiving. It was like we were never gone,” he said.

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