Fitzpatrick takes umbrage with ‘flawed system’

Though a handful of athletes moulded by DCU’s Athletics Academy represented Ireland at the recent Olympics, Director Enda Fitzpatrick laments those who were not afforded the chance to compete.

In 2004, not one track and field athlete studying at DCU garnered Olympic selection. No big deal really, considering the college was by no means the athletics fortress it is today. The Athletics Academy, on the back of huge investment from the college, came into being the following year and one of it early protégé’s Fionnuala Britton would represent Ireland at the Beijing Games.

Fast forward four years and five DCU athletes donned the green singlet at Stratford and while Academy Director Enda Fitzpatrick takes great pride in this, there is something niggling him, shifting uneasily in his chair as the Olympics enters conversation.

“The biggest disappointment for me was the four athletes from DCU who were not sent with Olympics B standards. You had Steven Colvert, 20.57 for the 200m, Brian Gregan, 45.61 for the 400m, Mark English, 1:45:77 for the 800m and we had Paul Robinson 3:37:91 for 1500m.

“I can understand for instance why Steven Colvert and Paul Robinson couldn’t have been sent because we already had two athletes with the A standard in their preferred distance, but Brian Gregan was flying it at that time. If you were looking for an athlete in form at the time of the Olympic Games, he was one that should have gone. Mark English in form also, should have gone.”

There is no hiding from the fact that these promising young athletes would only have benefited from competing at these Olympics. Boxers Paddy Barnes and John Joe Nevin said the experience of competing in Beijing four years earlier was crucial to their medal successes in London.

Moreover, the decision taken by Athletics Ireland and the OCI means that come 2016, these athletes will travel to Rio to compete in their first Olympic Games. Inexperience on the biggest stage of all could well be the deciding factor in their quest for medals, a sentiment shared by Fitzpatrick who adds that the A standard only policy is “without vision and totally flawed”.

“The Olympics isn’t an ordinary championship, it only comes around every four years and you might only compete in the Olympics once or twice in your career. Brian Gregan will be in Rio and he will have to cope with nerves in his heats. He should have experienced this nervousness in the heats in London.

“The same should have applied to Mark English, for he too will be in Rio. Mark finished fifth at the World Junior Championships earlier in the summer and two athletes from that race medalled in London. That highlights why these young, promising athletes should be sent on a B standard.”

As noted, five DCU athletes – Laura Reynolds, Fionnuala Britton, Linda Byrne, Clare Bergin and Deirdre Ryan – were selected for London, but Fitzpatrick is quick to add that it was race walker Reynolds who stole the show; a “revelation” he said.

“Laura went to La Coruna in Spain to get the A standard in what was last chance saloon, she managed that by talking over a minute of her personal best and then went and finished 20th at the Olympics.

“People say Robert Heffernan was our outstanding performer at the games, but this was his fourth Games and if you look where he was at his first Games, I bet Laura Reynolds wasn’t far behind him. For me, Laura’s performance further justifies bringing younger athletes to the Olympics that are close to the A standard.”

Regardless of whether or not the aforementioned athletes competed in London, each one is the product of a model that is edging ever closer to the likes of Loughborough, and the American college’s that for so long presented the only option of a successful athletics career. Though the Athletics Academy may not be the finished article just yet, DCU now stands as a viable alternative for budding Irish athletes wishing to stay at home.

Loughborough University offers a plethora of sports related coursessports science, nutritional supports and physical therapy that UK Athletics view as a “win win” situation. All such courses are on offer at DCU and Fitzpatrick believes the development of athletics in Ireland should be focused at the universities.

“UK athletics has embraced Loughborough, and a number of other key universities in the UK, by funding and assisting the developments of their programmes – in Ireland, our visionaries think that Abbotstown will be the answer.

“Athletes come to DCU because of what we have done for athletics, our name and because of our successes. With our program here, we don’t just have five or six good athletes, we have a tiered structure where 30 or 40 athletes are getting something. If they perform well, they move up a tier. We provide a better educational system than they do in America and more and more athletes are staying at home because they know their education alongside their athletics is very important.”

As DCU continues to churn out world class athletes on a proverbial conveyor belt, its representation at the 2016 games in Rio is potentially astronomical.

Eoghan Cormican

IMAGE CREDIT: Sportsfile

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