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Olympic decision to ditch 50km walk is unfair and big blow to Ireland - Barr

The event’s Olympic demise is because it is a male-only competition.

Jessie and Thomas Barr at the launch of the Irish Life Health 'Runuary' programme in Dunmore East, Waterford.
Jessie and Thomas Barr at the launch of the Irish Life Health 'Runuary' programme in Dunmore East, Waterford.
Image: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

IRISH OLYMPIAN Jessie Barr says this week’s decision to remove the 50km walk from the Olympic programme in Paris 2024 is a particularly bad blow to Irish athletics.

“We have such a strong history of it. The organisers seem to think it’s OK because the 20km (walk) is still there but it’s like taking the marathon out and keeping the 5,000m. They’re completely different events — one is a sprint, one is endurance — so taking away the 50km seems very unfair.

“Someone like Rob (Heffernan) wouldn’t be a world champion if there was no 50km,” she said.

“Someone like Brendan Boyce doesn’t do the 20km walk, he only does the 50km, so he’s probably going to be lost to the sport. Rob has also set up a race-walking academy in Cork. Does this change their plans for the future?

“The IOC are saying they want to reduce the number of events and athletes competing in the Olympics, yet they’re adding in new sports and removing ones that have been there so long.

“There’s probably other people out there delighted that their sport is being recognised now on the global stage but we’re always going to have a bias towards the walk in Ireland,” said the former Irish 400m hurdles star.

Rob Heffernan not only won a world title in the ultra-gruelling 50km walk in 2013 but was also retrospectively upgraded to an Olympic bronze medal from London 2012 Olympics where he had finished fourth.

Donegal race walker Brendan Boyce (34) was sixth in the 50km at last year’s World Championships.

The event’s Olympic demise is because it is a male-only competition and it is expected to be replaced by some kind of mixed gender athletics event in future Games.

The International Olympic Committee’s decision this week to cut numbers in some sports (most significantly in weightlifting and boxing) and ratify some new ‘urban’ sports on their 2024 programme, particularly ‘breaking’ (breakdancing), has raised some controversy.

But, speaking at the launch of Irish Life Health’s new ‘Runuary’ initiative for the New Year, Barr’s younger brother and fellow Olympian Thomas said he had no problem with new ‘creative’ sports being introduced to the five-ringed circus.

“I think the more sports the merrier. Someone tagged me on Instagram this morning that someone was looking for another dance member but I’ve two left feet,” he chuckled.

Gymnastics and boxing are already sports that are ‘judged’, in the same way that breakdancing probably will be. In one way the Olympics is keeping up with modern times because it’s allowing in more diverse sports. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

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While Jessie is now retired, she is still very involved with Ireland’s Olympic hopes next year, working as a sports psychologist with Ireland’s large track cycling team for Tokyo 2021.

She has also worked with Offaly camogie in the past and said what happened to the Galway team last Sunday was “a nightmare” and would not have happened to a men’s side.

“From a psychological point of view, it was a disaster, because those girls wouldn’t have been able to focus on what the task was, which is playing an All-Ireland semi-final, one of the biggest games they’ve played all year. I’m sure their heads were still going a million miles an hour, and still would have been at half-time.

Men’s teams wouldn’t have been expected to move two, three times. There’s been a lot of nastiness on Twitter being pointed at the Galway team, saying ‘well they should have been more organised’ but, at the end of the day, they weren’t the ones who chose to move (the venue) three times.

“I’ve been very lucky to come from athletics where gender equality has never been an issue. We’re treated the exact same. There’s never been ‘men versus women’ and I work in a lot of sports where it’s the same.

“But I have the experience of working a little bit with the Offaly camogie team and I do see there is an inequality there,” she added. “Maybe the only positive that could come out of this is that this is truly highlighted now and can’t be ignored anymore.”

Thomas Barr is still hoping to go one better next year than his heart-breaking fourth place in the 400m hurdles in Rio 2016 and believes this year’s postponement may yet even help to extend his Olympic career.

“If 2020 had gone ahead as normal I was at the point where I was like ‘can I do another four-year cycle, physically and mentally?’ The latter side might have let me down,” the 28-year-old Waterford hurdler admitted.

Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy the sport and could definitely have gone for another two to three years but another four-year cycle would have been a bit of a stretch for me perhaps.

“The fact that I’ve got a little bit of a break this summer and am back training now and feeling really refreshed mentally and physically, with just a three-year cycle to the next Olympics, that’s a much more manageable time frame for me. It has definitely given me more of a push for Paris 2024.”

Olympians, Jessie and Thomas Barr were speaking at the launch of the Irish Life Health ‘Runuary’ programme, supporting runners of all levels, to stay on track and to run January and not let it run them. Developed in partnership with Athletics Ireland, runners can sign-up free of charge to the training programme at Barr an Irish Life Health Ambassador is backing the campaign as it gives runners the choice to select a programme that suits their ability and works with the time commitment that they have available in order to complete a distance of 5 miles, 10 miles or 31km on January 31st.

About the author:

Cliona Foley

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