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'I remember people in a pub asking was I finished with the running because I was so 'useless' at it'

Derval O’Rourke on why it is important to show respect to all Irish athletes who compete at the Olympics.

Derval O'Rourke (file pic).
Derval O'Rourke (file pic).
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated at 9.45

BEING A top-level athlete in a so-called ‘niche’ sport is not easy by any means.

Derval O’Rourke, during the week, outlined her concerns about the funding, or lack thereof, afforded to the majority of these individuals.

She feels the government should show more respect to the likes of athletics, while she is encouraging the general public to do the same.

Not every Irish athlete can achieve Sonia O’Sullivan-esque greatness after all, and with minimal resources available to most at present, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to achieve at the highest level.

Former sprint hurdles athlete O’Rourke, of course, knows what it takes to prevail in elite sport — she competed at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics, while her achievements include a gold medal at the World Indoor Championships and two silvers at the European Championships.

Having announced her retirement in 2014, O’Rourke now works as an analyst and is set to be part of RTÉ’s Tokyo coverage, provided the Games do go ahead as expected this summer.

O’Rourke will no doubt be aiming to challenge any unrealistic expectations or unfair criticism of Irish athletes that is often a feature of big events such as the Olympics, as armchair critics and casual fans with no deep knowledge of athletics thoughtlessly take aim.

While not all are certain of qualifying just yet, O’Rourke highlights Sarah Lavin, Thomas Barr, Phil Healy, Ciara Mageean and Nadia Power among the athletes she is hoping to see competing and making an impact.

“What I would be saying is that any athlete who qualifies for the Olympics from Ireland, in the country that we’re in, has done a phenomenal job, and I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that straight off the bat,” O’Rourke says.

“Qualifying for an Olympic Games isn’t easy in any sport. And I think people forget that. I came home from the Athens Olympics and I ran dreadfully, but I had been in hospital three weeks before it, I was very unwell. I remember people in a pub asking me was I finished with the running now because I was so ‘useless’ at it.

“So sometimes people’s understanding of actually what a high level the Olympic Games is might not be exactly where we’d like it to be. People are getting better, but I think acknowledging that it’s impressive to qualify is important.

“Beyond that, I think that once you have athletes there, you want them to have ideally the best race of their lives, but the best race of their year — if an athlete does that, whatever position that leaves them in, they’ve had an incredibly successful Olympics.

“In terms of finals and medals, that’s such a hard, hard thing to do — the last time we got a medal in track was 2000, with Sonia. There’s a reason for that. The world of track and field has incredible depth, some of the most competitive sports in the world — so expectations of medals, I would be trying to reduce those. You have to look at a person, where they’re at and where that leaves them globally.”

O’Rourke promises that she will not be positive for the sake of it though. RTÉ have a long history of employing analysts unafraid to provide rigorous and often brutally honest criticism, with the late Jerry Kiernan perhaps the most notable example when it comes to athletics.

“I’m going to be critical,” she says. “If you put yourself on the start line at an Olympics, your aim should be to run your best of that whole year. Anything outside of that, you should walk away and wonder why it didn’t go that way.

“But right now, I think we have a few athletes capable of making finals, but I also think it’s going to be an incredibly fast Olympics. 

“A year without a lot of racing has meant standards are elevated. You see it in results that are coming out everywhere now. I think it’s going to be super quick and it’s how quick are our athletes compared to that. But it’s funny, I was thinking about this yesterday and I’m not sure if it’s a good comparison, but the Olympic Games in track is almost like you’re on a motorway and everyone’s got amazing cars. I sometimes think with our athletes, you kind of put them on there on skateboards and you’re going: ‘Best of luck racing those cars.’

“I think we do prepare them well in terms of their personal coaches and the athletes themselves, but when you have situations like the broader funding discussion and I think the last year during Covid, it wasn’t easy at times for some of the Olympic-sport athletes.

“So I hope they’ll be as prepared as they can be, but I think you have to keep your expectations in check because we’re not a country that’s really preparing to send people to the Olympics to go really well. I think we could be doing more.”

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student-enterprise-programme-jpg Derval O’Rourke was speaking ahead of the Student Enterprise Programme National Finals on Friday. Source: GERARD McCARTHY 087 8537228

Another challenge facing all athletes, Irish or otherwise, will be dealing with the almost inevitable low that comes after the high of competing in the Olympics.

These sports stars, without exception, spend years obsessing over the tiniest details, all in preparation for a few days of competition at most.

Then suddenly, it all disappears, and the individual often has no fixed schedule or high-pressure goals to meet.

Irrespective of how well or badly they have performed, many past Olympians have spoken of struggling in the months following the event. Does O’Rourke have any advice for the class of 2021?

“I went to three — Athens, Beijing and London. Athens I was really inexperienced, I had no structure or plan in place and then Beijing I kind of knew what the aftermath was. I always planned for something afterwards, but I did that with every championship, not just the Olympics where that September I planned to do something. In 2012, I went to cookery school afterwards and literally learned how to bake cakes and make bread, and had a great time.

“So I think it’s really important to put something in place that’s completely different to your sport because so much of how you feel and what you do is wrapped up in that Olympic experience. Come August, when it’s over, you need to be able to do something else and take a bit of time to reflect.

“I definitely did that after London. I was trying to decide whether to retire or not, and having that time to think, here are a few weeks to do something completely different than being a runner, but I’m also going to have these thoughts in the back of my mind, is important.

“Definitely, putting something in the diary and planning for that [is key]. We’re in May and it’s very hard when you’re an Olympic athlete to think anything is going to happen beyond August. You literally think the world will stop, but it won’t.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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