Opinion

Barshim flies high, but we’ve hit a new low

There is a moment, during the 1976 film Network — which chronicles the story of a struggling US TV news channel — where lead character Howard Beale, the stressed-out news anchor, finally and completely loses it. “I don’t have to tell you things are bad,” he states aggressively, live on air, to his viewers. “We know things are bad; worse than bad, they’re crazy.

“You’ve got to get mad,” he continues. “I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want  you to get up right now, go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell: ‘I’m as MAD as hell and I’m not  going to take this any more.’

IMG_5900

Fan favourite: Mutaz Essa Barshim prepares to jump in front of the Athlone crowd. Image: Loughlin Campion

I thought about this scene last night, as I sat in an apartment in the Bronx, 3,000 miles from home, trying and failing  to watch the embarrassing comedy of errors that plagued the Athlone International Grand Prix, turning what should  have been a sparkling Prom Night of celebration for Irish athletics into, well, what more closely resembled the Prom  Night from Carrie. Never seen Carrie? Okay, well, safe to say the big night doesn’t exactly go as planned, for everyone except Carrie, that is.

The Good

Anyway, to the action, so we can start off positively. Mutaz Essa Barshim was, it’s fair to say, magnificent. To jump 2:41m, an Asian Indoor record, was everything we could have hoped for and more from the young Qatari. His presence in Athlone was the big draw: a massive, thoroughly likeable current and future superstar of the sport who came to put on a show for the paying public.

The same couldn’t be said, however, for Carmelita Jeter, who didn’t look too bothered when running way below form in the women’s 60m. She may be the fastest woman alive, but she certainly didn’t go to Athlone to prove it. Still, at least we got to see her run, which was more than we did for Asafa Powell, who no-showed for the men’s 60m after reportedly getting injured in warm-up.

Sharika Nelvis was great in the 60m hurdles, blasting home in 7.93 seconds, as was Erik Sowinski in the 800m, winning in 1:47.42 and so, too, was Ben Blankenship, who romped home in the men’s mile to win in 3:56.75.

The Bad 

Mile History: Ben Blankenship en route to the first sub-four-minute indoor mile in Ireland. Image: Loughlin Campion

Mile History: Ben Blankenship en route to the first sub-four-minute indoor mile in Ireland. The closing 600m of the race wasn’t shown on the television broadcast due to a delayed timetable. Image: Loughlin Campion

But wait, you probably missed that, right? Don’t feel too bad; most of us did, too. Those who were watching the Irish TV coverage saw the broadcast end abruptly with just 600m remaining in the show-piece event of the night. The reason, say IrishTV, was that the timetable was so far behind schedule and the broadcast had to end at 9:30pm. It sent a hurricane of fury blowing across social media.

We asked IrishTV whether they had considered extending the broadcast, as your typical major TV station like RTE or BBC would, when they saw the event was about to over-run its slot. “If Irish TV got government funding like RTE and BBC with 100k to spend on live events there would be no worries,” came the response. “Nothing Irish TV could do.”

Fair enough, I suppose, though it shouldn’t take a hundred grand to extend the broadcast by a couple of minutes. We’re not looking for Michael Johnson offering expertise in a heated studio, or Tim Hutchings calling the action, or super-slow-mo replays of the high jump. We just wanted to see the biggest race of the night, in full. Was that so hard?

The channel duly endured a veritable shit storm of criticism on Twitter for its ill-timed hitting of the doom-switch, switching over to a pre-recorded cooking show at a climactic time in the final race of the night when the moment the whole meet was built around — the first sub-four-minute indoor mile on Irish soil — was about to go down. Remember that final, crucial interception play in the Super Bowl climax this year? Yeah, imagine cutting to some dude cooking moments before that, and you get why fans were especially pissed off.

Budget, or lack thereof, may well be a reasonable excuse for such a move but if so, it’s hard to see many sporting events keen to use Irish TV for broadcasting if they can’t accommodate the unpredictability of live sport and be flexible in such an instance. For example, if they broadcast a match that goes to extra-time, would they make the same move? If they were showing the greyhound derby and the big race was delayed by 15 minutes due to, let’s say, a demented former priest running on to the track in protest, do they still hit the doom switch and show us Cooking with Treyvaud, as they did last night, instead of what we tuned in to see?

The Ugly

The online stream they offered of their broadcast worked, occasionally, here and there, just maybe, if you tried it on about seven different devices and kept refreshing every minute or so to overcome the constant, infuriating hitching. Sprints coach Ian Graham described it, rather appropriately, as “horseshit”. The event, of course, was also broadcast by Flotrack online, though that required signing up to a paid subscription to their FloPro service. That stream, by all accounts of the paying customers, worked fine.

The blame, of course, shouldn’t really lie at the door of Irish TV, for the amateurism which slowly and overwhelmingly enveloped this meeting had tentacles that reached much further than theirs could. The question has to be asked: why were they forced to hit the doom-switch mid-race? How could such a major event be allowed to drift a half hour behind schedule? In this respect, Irish TV’s hands were tied, and the blame has to lie at the organisers’ door too. Yep, you hear that? Someone, somewhere, has dropped the ball. Not just dropped it, in fact. Dropped it, punctured it, then thrown up all over it.

An Amateur Approach

It’s not an unusual occurrence in Irish athletics, where the very idea that you criticise someone who is volunteering is usually seen as blasphemous. Does this mean, though, that any such incompetence should be excused, that we should all just lope along and accept that in Ireland, the attitude of ‘ah sure, look, it’ll be grand’ will always prevail?

No, it doesn’t, and whether volunteers or paid professionals are the ones screwing up, we need to highlight it, discuss it, and improve it. This may surprise some, but I’ve never been paid a cent for writing on this website. None of us has. Does this mean it’s okay to suddenly rite tohtal krap dat is bairly compryhensable too da humen mynd, beecos im knot gettin payed? No.

Seriously, if the Irish Schools Championships, for example, can be run with military precision and rigorous adherence to its timetable almost every year, then how an event with the names the AIT International had last night cannot is both a mystery and an embarrassment.

Not Fit for Purpose

The fault, in this instance, is probably due to the timing and starting equipment in Athlone, which could best be described as questionable. At worst, it could be described as utterly incapable of being fit for its purpose. It needs to go, possibly into a deep ravine or a large pit of flaming molten steel, like that one at the end of Terminator 2. Either that, or face an entirely new set of calibrators who have experience in programming a system designed for world class sporting events.

Out of time: the women's 60m final, which was re-run due to a malfunctioning clock. Image: Loughlin Campion

Out of time: the women’s 60m final, which was re-run due to a malfunctioning clock. Image: Loughlin Campion

There were several recalls in the sprints last night and a suspicious amount of green cards. Just how many faulty starts can an arena have before someone stands up and says that it wasn’t the start that was faulty, it was the system or the people operating it? “One thing is a certainty,” said Irish sprints coach Shane McCormack, “in the interests of athletics and the athlete, that start system needs to be removed.”

Craig Lynch, one of our best sprinters, also joined the discussion, adding: “timing system is an absolute disgrace. Even worse to see so many false starts being let go or given green cards when officials know the system is shit.”

The women’s 60m final saw the clock fail to start, and none of the international stars in attendance such as Tiana Bartoletta or Carmelita Jeter bothered with the re-run. And why would they? It’d be like going to watch a famous singer in concert, and just when they’d finished their whole set, telling them that the speakers weren’t working all along so, ehm, we’re going to need you to do that all again if you wouldn’t mind, pretty please?

Laughing Stock

Track troubles: competitors in the men's 60m after the starter's recall. Image: Loughlin Campion

Track troubles: competitors in the men’s 60m after the starter’s recall. Image: Loughlin Campion

It was an embarrassment. There was no live results service for people to see how their friends and family members fared. The commentators were starved of results, too, so couldn’t let anyone know. Sonia O’Sullivan, trying to follow the action from Australia, tweeted: “you get faster results from the schools sports here in Melbourne.”

Jon Mulkeen, an editor of the IAAF website, was naturally trying to follow the meeting closely from abroad. Trying, and failing, that is. “This meeting is going really well, isn’t it?” he sarcastically wrote after we tweeted about the recalls and errors in the sprints. “I just want it to hurry up and end and for someone to send me the results so I can actually work out what happened.”

Jamie Davis, our national 100m champion, had this to offer when learning of the night’s events: “Usual night then? At least they’re consistent. Keep on going to the continent, don’t bother with Irish events.”

And that, you have to say, would be the greatest shame if this was allowed to happen again: that we see Irish, and indeed international athletes, turn their backs on Athlone, which is an utterly cracking facility, in favour of the more reliable, more renowned international meets.

Dropping the Ball

The real shame is that they did the hard part. Organisers, and much credit to them, managed to get a clutch of world stars of the sport to the Irish midlands and that, in turn, drew in a capacity crowd. They did a lot right, let’s be clear on that, but there’s no getting away from the fact that a lot of things were run with about as much precision as a drunken elephant trying to play darts for the first time.

We had such a chance, with this meet, to showcase what everyone agreed was a truly great set of athletes in a superb facility. Some, like Barshim, came, saw and duly conquered, putting on a memorable show for the people who filled every corner of the arena.

Don’t get me wrong: it was good, at times really good. Ask anyone there and they will tell you as much, like Michael Tobin, who wrote: “there were some problems with the timing equipment, but 99pc of the event went off really well and the organisers deserve huge credit.”

The problem is, though, good shouldn’t cut it for an event like this. It could have, should have, been better than that.

Last night, we had the chance, for once, to be great. And guess what? We pissed it away.

 

The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of jumping-the-gun.com. An additional column on the AIT International Grand Prix will be published by Feidhlim Kelly, who was stadium announcer on the night.

Still mad as hell? Here, watch this: Howard Beale feels your pain.

 

 

 

Image via 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.

9 Comments

  1. Kieran Kelly
    February 19, 2015 at 7:48 am — Reply

    It was a well arranged meet I just think it overran because of the delays of the 60m and also running the 4x200m with the kids took a bit extra and being honest we could have done without giving kids a run out in a serious international track event. On the 60m, the blocks and calibration do need to be looked at.

  2. conor lynch
    February 19, 2015 at 8:33 am — Reply

    Hi Cathal

    Really enjoyed your article. Despite the diappointments. Good work.

    Regards
    Conor

  3. R. J.
    February 19, 2015 at 11:08 am — Reply

    I have to agree with Kieran, the kids relay wasn’t necessary at such an event – as good as the kids were. They were all crowded around the start line – right on top of the long jump, which meant most of us spectators couldn’t see the jumps, and was probably distracting for the athletes. The false starts and timing issues are a constant in Athlone, yet there has been nothing done to rectify it! How can we expect to compete on the world stage when this is the best we can offer!!

  4. February 19, 2015 at 11:18 am — Reply

    Hi Cathal

    Great article, truthful to the point of pain. Just wanted to add the starting problem is two years old now at least, I witnessed a whole stadium laughing when the false starts ran to 6 in one race last year after maybe 40 throughout the day, I also witnessed one starter official agressively berate young athletes who questioned the blocks.. Sad thing is it has cost some athletes national championships with dubious disqualifications on the line.

    Regards
    LB

    • Cathal Dennehy
      February 19, 2015 at 9:17 pm — Reply

      Thanks, LB.
      The starting system is a joke, and it’s been common knowledge in Irish athletics for the past year. The organisers got what they deserved in this sense, as embarrassing as it was for all concerned, for not taking action on what they were well aware was a faulty system. You’d have to wonder if Jeter or Bartoletta and co. will ever bother returning when they couldn’t even find out how fast they ran.

  5. Conor Dooney
    February 19, 2015 at 12:11 pm — Reply

    Well done Cathal,

    You are completely correct in that we dropped the ball on a huge opportunity to shine here.

    There are certain track events in this country that run seamlessly and with the type of precision you expect for a high profile athletics event. You are bang on with the Irish schools and the Morton Games deserves a shout out for being exceptionally well run over the last few years.

    These are the standards that should be adopted across the board. If these events can run as well as they do with volunteers then they should act as the baseline standard. There needs to be accountability as these events are all about momentum and reputation. The Morton Games will continue to thrive due to the show it has put on. Will the Athlone International live on? Hard to say after what happened last night.

    • Cathal Dennehy
      February 19, 2015 at 9:21 pm — Reply

      Thanks, Conor.
      Morton is indeed a fantastic meeting and one that holds up so well against any other non-Diamond League meet on the outdoor circuit. It’s managed and run so professionally, even though many of the organisers are working in an amateur capacity.

      Hopefully the AIT International lives on, because there’s nothing stopping it becoming an annual top-quality indoor meeting on the circuit. As they say, mistakes are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them. Hopefully this cock-up will finally make Athlone and others take action and sort out the issues so we won’t be having this discussion this time next year.

  6. Antoine
    February 20, 2015 at 2:02 pm — Reply

    Well said. I’ve no doubt, some people worked very hard to make the night happen, but on the whole I feel the organizers need to raise their game a lot. The volunteer thing wrecks my head. On one hand, they’re a dying breed and genuinely deserve huge respect; on the other hand, some of them really, really need to move on and make way for others who could do a better job. Volunteer ego is a dangerous, dangerous thing. I’ve seen it cripple organisations and stunt the growth of many an individual and team. There should be full accountability for stuff-ups and volunteer or no volunteer, arses kicked if embarrassing incidents are allowed to happen in the running of the event. Many events can run a strict timetable as noted by Feidhlim including the Irish Schools which punches way above its weight as a world class schools event. One of my favorite track meets was the Penn Relays which you could set your watch by – meticulously well organised and run.

    Putting your hand up as a volunteer for a major event such as this is a serious responsibility. Certain roles need to be ring-fenced as critically important with a set of standards/ competence/ skills and expectations required of them. And then be assessed and accounted for – very directly and very seriously. I’ve seen way too much pussy footing around the volunteer thing – as an excuse to do whatever and then simply walk away when things go wrong or an athlete over-trains/ mis-trains/ gets injured etc. If Ireland is to stage big events like this again and expect major sponsors, crowds and big name athletes to return…event organisers need to raise their game and volunteers need to carefully consider which side of the fence they’d be better suited to

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