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End of the road

It’s the bullshit I can’t stand.

The decision, I could take. But the fluff, the dancing-around-the-obvious, going-in-a-different-direction, widening-the-pool crock of steaming effluent we were fed yesterday – that’s the bit that gets me.

If you’re going to axe a group of commentators who have done a job for seven years – and, to most accounts, done it quite well – then here are some rules Athletics Ireland might want to consider next time around. Just in case, you know, we’re here again in 2028, a month out from the LA Olympics.

Step one: Perhaps pick up the phone and tell them.

Common courtesy, you’d think? Although, wait, do people even make calls anymore? Maybe send an email. Or a text, or a WhatsApp. Heck, even a Snapchat or one of those disappearing Instagram DMs, maybe adding a comical meme to lighten the mood: Y’all done lol.

But no. We were cut quietly, anonymously, at a time we didn’t know and by a person or people we’re still not aware of.

For an organisation with communication issues that often border on comical, to not tell people you’ve worked with for seven years that they’ve been ditched from a gig they’ve done longer than most employees have been around equates to truly troubling levels of shithousery.

Ghosted by a national governing body. There’s one for the Tinder profile.

It’s strange. The last contact I had with the marketing department of Athletics Ireland was in early May. I was at the World Relays in Poland, reporting for World Athletics, where two Irish teams turned in brilliant performances. First, there was the mixed 4x400m qualifying for the final and thereby the Olympics, the joy of a dream realised etched on their faces afterwards.

My only official business in the mixed zone that night was to interview Polish and South African athletes, but I figured many people back home would be interested in reaction from the four Irish heroes of the hour. So I filmed a short video interview and snapped some pictures, then sent them to Athletics Ireland via WhatsApp, who shared them on their social media platforms, generating tens of thousands of interactions. The next night, I did the same when the Irish women’s 4x200m team finished a superb second.

Knowing what I now know, I should really have sent an invoice too.

IMG-20210502-WA0022

But that was it, our last contact until Thursday afternoon when I found out a whole 24 hours before the start of the National Championships that Ronan Duggan, Gerard O’Donnell and I would no longer be commentating on the event for the first time since they began live-streaming.

The reason? They’re “spreading the commentary around this year”, looking to expand the “pool of commentators.”

This reason, that one right there, is absolute nonsense.

Because the truth is, if you were looking to do that, any half-functioning organisation would retain at least one of the three people with several years’ experience and then bring in some fresh faces alongside them.

But no, instead we were gone. All of us, gone. Out the gap without so much as a sorry-about-this-but-our-hands-are-tied.

In the past couple of days, they were still scrambling around to find someone – anyone – who was not us to do it. We heard from multiple people who were offered the gig, most of whom turned it down.

What made it all worse was the person telling me this – a person I like, a person who is good at their job – was quite clearly not the one who made the decision. But the person truly pulling the strings had not even bothered to pick up the phone or offer an explanation.

I asked on Thursday who the replacement commentators were, this widened pool they spoke of. (They couldn’t say).

As time went on, we got an idea from contacts in the athletics community how the whole process played out. We heard of the people with little or no commentary experience who were asked, nigh-on begged, if they could fill in, this at the flagship event of the year for Irish athletics. As it turned out, there wasn’t that giant a queue of others desperate to get behind a mic and talk about athletics for six hours straight.

One person I spoke to – a genuine, hard-working person who deserves a break exactly like this – had been all set to take the gig, a person I’d have been delighted to see given the chance. But then their presence was also vetoed by a higher power, their cardinal sin that they once interviewed a person who said things about the association that were not positive.

Widen the pool, but not that far.

So why exactly were we axed? Maybe it was financial? They could argue this, but they didn’t, and our very reasonable fees had never been an issue during the pandemic-riddled 2020 (or in 2019, or in 2014).

Maybe it was performance-related? Again, we were told on Thursday we’d only ever done a brilliant job and they were extremely happy with our last commentaries.

We racked our brain, trying to work out what we’d done. Then it hit me.

In late May, I had written a short news article for the Irish Examiner website about the stand-off between Athletics Ireland and the Belfast Irish Milers Club meeting regarding their European permit, which had been revoked due to meeting director Eamonn Christie signing off the application on behalf of Athletics Ireland.

I reached out to Christie to hear his side of the story. Then I reached out to Athletics Ireland CEO Hamish Adams and requested comment from him, given the association had said nothing about it other than issuing a wooden statement. That didn’t seem like enough given athletes I knew – Olympic-bound athletes – were stressed and worried about the situation, knowing it would affect their qualification chance. To me, they had a duty to their athletes to communicate what was happening behind the scenes.

They felt different.

Adams emailed back a response which stated he had “nothing more to add” in addition to what the association put out in that statement. So I included that response, along with the statement, and explained in the article why it would hurt the qualification chances of Irish athletes if the permit wasn’t granted.

Then I barely gave it a second thought.

The following week, when the permit was re-instated, I did not report on it as I was on a week off from work due to a health issue, and nor did I tweet about it as I’d temporarily deleted the app off my phone (yes, I’m an addict). Maybe the lack of follow-up was what irked them? If that was the case, you’d think the boss man would pick up the phone and let me know (he has my number).

The more I think about it, the more I believe there is no other plausible explanation for cutting us from commentary duty at the national championships other than the content of that article, the facts of which have never been disputed.

But here’s the thing: If it was just me being axed, I’d totally get it.

I’m a freelance journalist who covers the sport for national newspapers, along with doing commentary work for Athletics Ireland and others at events throughout the year. That creates an inevitable, if only very occasional, conflict of interest.

And sure, it’d be petty for someone at Athletics Ireland to throw the toys out of the office pram over an article whose content was correct, which was not challenged via any letter to an editor, but it’d also (just about) be understandable.

What I can’t abide, what I still don’t understand, is how they can justify cutting off work from two colleagues – Gerard O’Donnell and Ronan Duggan – who have done an incredible job engaging fans with the sport over the last several years.

The last time Duggan commentated for Athletics Ireland, he had to carry two full days of the elite micro-meet all by himself, a one-man band (due to Covid restrictions) of insight, wit, and entertaining athletic enlightenment for those watching. He’s been there, as we all have, at countless juvenile events in Athlone, calling 36 consecutive 60-metre heats in a row on one occasion. He’s been there at the national masters, commentating on five consecutive 5Ks, and he’s been there, on a roof in Tullamore, educating us about the new generation of schools stars.

Why cut him off, completely, with no contact or proper explanation?

It’s a question I haven’t found a legitimate answer to, and one I don’t expect an answer to.

On the day of the national championships – the pre-Olympics, make-or-break national championships – it feels wrong to be griping about this, and I know some will say it’s a drum that I should stop beating. Once this is published, I will.

But if their goal was to cut us from our previous role with the minimum of noise, the only real time to write this is now, today, so people see how they have operated, how they have treated three long-time members of the association whose chief motivation has always been to raise the profile of the sport.

IMG-20210624-WA0023__01Yes, it’s wrong to deflect attention from the athletes, who deserve so much more than they get, and who are underserved by a national governing body that keeps awareness of its national championships guarded like a state secret.

There will be lots of amazing races this weekend, and the athletes’ stories are worth getting excited about. I spoke about a lot of them on GameOn 2FM last night.

Someone else – I don’t know exactly who, they refused to tell us – will be doing the commentary on the YouTube stream and I genuinely wish them the best with it.

They, too, will be people who care a lot about the sport and will no doubt do their very best, and I’m aware of two people who initially agreed to it who told me they were completely unaware of our situation, who have both since pulled out.

The reaction to it on Twitter last night was astonishing. Genuinely. Everyone who sent a message of support: thank you. It showed us we weren’t as bad at it as the national governing body seems to think.

And the thing is, we don’t want any sympathy here. We’re all lucky enough to be in full-time employment amid a pandemic, and at the end of the day we’re not deluded enough to believe any of this really matters. We shouted into microphones for several years and now we won’t be doing so anymore. Boo-hoo.

But the real loss we feel is not financial. It’s having something you genuinely love doing being taken away from you with no proper explanation.

Normally when that happens, it’s not pretty, no matter the method used to end a relationship. But the least you’d expect is someone to have the decency to actually tell you it’s over.

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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 previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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