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STATE OF THE NATION PODCAST (PART TWO): THE FUTURE OF ATHLETICS

What can we learn from the mistakes of our best athletes? Is the doping problem in athletics as bad as we think? What needs to be done to the sport to restore its popularity? Those are some of the questions posed in part two of JumpingTheGun’s podcast special, edited by Ronan Duggan.

In this episode, Ciarán Ó Lionáird and David Campbell delve deeper into the issues in Irish athletics and with the sport as a whole, from the biggest regrets and best decisions they made in their own career to what they would do if they were made CEO of Athletics Ireland.

“Throwing myself into something in the deep end,” Campbell highlights as his best decision. “When you really do that and give it everything, things happen. Regrets? That’s simple: I didn’t go to the Olympics. But I’ve never met anyone who was content with what they achieved; they always wanted more.”

For Ó Lionáird, rescuing his career by transferring college was his proudest decision, though inevitably he came to have a few regrets when he stepped away from the sport.

“My best decision was to go to Florida State,” he says. “I stayed on a mattress on my friend’s living room for much of the first year, but that was what I needed to do. What was the best decision needed for my running?

“In terms of regrets, I was very confident in dialogue around my training when I was in college, but somewhere along the line as a professional I lost the confidence to speak up and didn’t challenge what I needed to do. All the best coaching situations, athletes thrive off having interactions with coaches and I was a bit complacent as a professional and didn’t take enough ownership. Had I done that I might have reached my full potential, which I didn’t.”

Doping Dilemma

The pair also field questions concerning the ongoing doping problem in athletics, and are asked whether they reflect differently on their achievements given what we now know about the landscape in the sport during their careers.

“I don’t think there was as many athletes doping as the media pushed out there, but I was probably a bit naive to it,” says Campbell. “We’re in the best place track and field has been in in the last 50 years, but these days unless there’s a story about doping then athletics isn’t in the paper, and that’s unfair on the athletes.”

It’s a belief echoed by Ó Lionáird: “I don’t think the doping is as big as it’s made out to be. There’s an industry around covering doping, a skewed view on what the sport is like. Athletics takes a lot of heat because it’s an easy thing to go after, but we have to be careful. If you start to focus on doping, have such a strong emphasis on it, you start to give athletes an out who are coming up through the ranks, and it’s easy for them to be jaded if they start to think doping is everywhere. We need to let people know you can make it to the very top clean.”

Campbell and Ó Lionáird also discuss how they’ve transitioned to view running in a different light since stepping away from competitive athletics, and the struggles of replacing the highs of racing at the highest level.

Taking Control

The pair answer what they would do if, hypothetically, they were made CEO or High-Performance Director of Athletics Ireland, with both highlighting the need to funnel funding from the mass market of running towards the elite end.

Ciarán Ó Lionáird and Paul Robinson in the 2014 national 1500m final

Ciarán Ó Lionáird and Paul Robinson in the 2014 national 1500m final

“It’s a weird culture in running,” says Ó Lionáird. “We don’t separate athletes from runners. There’s a difference between a runner and an athlete. Over here [in the US] you don’t see a Dad throwing an American football around with his kid and say: ‘Oh, I’m a quarterback’. They have to be treated differently. There needs to be marketing for the running side of it and also a marketing side around the elite athletes.”

Amid declining attendances on the global circuit, the discussion also covers what needs to be done to restore athletics’ popularity.

“I’d love to see the clock taken away,” says Campbell, “because what do people really love watching in athletics? Races. The sport is failing the athletes. Everyone really has to start upping their game. If you can turn greyhound racing in Ireland into a massive industry, how can they not do it in athletics with all the personalities, role models and the most gender-equal sport on the planet?”

Ó Lionáird believes moving away from an individual approach to a team ethic is one important step the sport needs to take.

“The reason the Olympics are so popular, the casual fan can cheer for something that represents them,” he says. “The Diamond League doesn’t capture the imagination; there’s nothing for the casual fan to grab a hold of.”

Ó Lionáird also broaches the tricky topic of weight in athletics, arguing that more athletes need to consider it when trying to reach their potential.

“The leanness is a bit taboo,” he says. “You look at Irish athletes that are really successful, Rob Heffernan, Paul Robinson,  and they’re lean. There’s not a pick. You can tell pretty quickly if an athlete has a layer on them. It takes a lot of dedication to get yourself to the weight you need to compete at the highest level in track and field.

“You need to hold yourself accountable and make the right decisions. Before you can go down the road of drugs, you have to get everything right on your end, or else you can’t talk about people being on drugs, unless you’ve done everything possible right on your end, and none of us have done that.”

Dual stars: David Campbell (left) winning the national senior 800m title in 2007 and Ciarán Ó Lionáird (right) taking victory at the Boston Indoor Grand Prix in 2012. Images: Kieran Carlin & PhotoRun
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He has won two sports-writing awards, the Peter Ball Memorial Award in Ireland and the Wills Writing Award in the UK. Nationally, he previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, the Guardian and The Independent in Britain. He is a regular contributor to Running Times, Runner's World, RunBlogRun and the IAAF website.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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