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London, Dublin, Tullamore, Cork. That’s been the extent of our mini European athletics tour this summer. My daughter Sophie was doing the racing this time, while for me it was a gentle reminder of what life used to be like, only this time looking on from trackside.
In recent summers I’ve found myself looking on from afar, checking up on the athletic results coming in overnight as I’m waking up in Australia. This year we took advantage of the Australian winter school holidays, and dropped into a few international and local track meetings on this side of the world.
It certainly felt like the good old days when I arrived at the River Lee Hotel in Cork on Tuesday morning. As we crossed the little bridge into town we bumped into Ray Flynn, still the Irish 1,500m and mile record holder, just back from a run with his daughter.
Then a little further down the street crossed paths with Marcus O’Sullivan, who has run over 100 sub-four minute miles, and a regular on and off the track at the Cork City Sports.
It turned out to be a special evening in Cork. The track at Cork IT was bathed in glorious sunshine and it certainly brought back memories of years gone by at the Mardyke.
The only pity is that so few of the top Irish athletes made it part of their racing schedule, particularly the athletes who will be competing in London at the World Championships in just a few weeks.
There is nothing like the boost you get from competing in front of an enthusiastic home crowd. And also having to deal with the pressure and expectation of a home win to help get the crowd on their feet.
Even with the lack of Irish stars there were some superb races that electrified the crowd. You could sense why the Cork City Sports committee are so passionate about what they do, and never fail to attract top athletes from all around the world to put on a show.
It wasn’t all about the international athletes either. In line with the recent boom in fitness, there was an inter-firm relay that generated great excitement amongst regular runners who were happy just to be a part of the Cork City Sports, still an iconic event on the Irish athletics calendar each year.
It’s a meeting that often needs a local star to help grab the attention of the national media, but even in the absence of that, it felt like an important night for Irish athletics. The local young athletes were given a chance to shine in a series of 200m races, followed by a junior girls 800m and junior boys 1,500m.
These races give young athletes a chance to develop, to feel like they are competing on the international stage, even as a warm-up to the main events. The junior 3,000m relay was an event I was especially looking forward to, set up to mark the Irish junior record that I’d set 30 years ago, in what was my first Cork City Sports.
Teams of five junior girls raced with the aim of cracking that 9:01 Irish junior record. It was even more special for me to see Sophie run around, as part of the East Cork team, and even more so as they smashed my time, together running 8:46.
For young athletes, it really is all about the taking part, more than the winning. And in many ways the early events generated as much excitement as the international races that followed.
It’s always nice to revisit places where in days gone by it was all about the track, the hotel and the airport. Athletes don’t often get to see much more as they travel around from city to city.
In the past week as we’ve travelled around it’s been amazing to see Sophie race on some tracks that have great memories for me. Like in Tullamore on Sunday, where Sophie won the girls under-17 1,500m at the national juvenile championships, also running for Ballymore Cobh AC, 32 years after I’d won the same race, back in 1985. These are the sort of days you could never imagine happening.
What was equally important was how much exploring and activities we could fit in around the races. It’s important for young athletes to explore and enjoy the things beyond the track and the racing, especially at that age.
When they are still at school, they need to broaden what they see and do, and not just focus solely on the intensity that can come with training and racing as they get older, and possibly enter the world of professional sports.
There is no doubt that for children to find a love of sport at a young age is great for their fitness and health, but it’s just a small part of the day, and if contained properly it can lead to a lifetime enjoying sports.
I know back in 1987 I wasn’t lying down having a rest before driving up from Cobh for my first race at the Cork City Sports. I had no idea who I was going to be running against in the race, as I wandered the streets of Cobh all afternoon with my friends, until it was time to get a lift into the city with my Dad.
It was similar on Tuesday morning, as I was walking the streets of Cork with Sophie. We did a bit of shopping, stopped and had some lunch, then another coffee stop to meet some friends, before walking back out to get changed before heading to the track.
It’s important to keep these things in perspective at that age. So as part of the tour we also had to fit in London’s Tower Bridge and a visit to the Shard, the tallest building in Europe, then Tayto Park, and later Boland’s Lock in Tullamore, then a whole afternoon exploring Spike Island.
Kids are so full of energy, but it’s not just the physical activities that are important. They also need to keep the brain active with an open mind to all outdoor activities and no restrictions.
I try to keep my distance from the training that Sophie does. A bit like when I used to get notes through my letterbox from my coach Sean Kennedy when I was starting out, Sophie gets text messages from her Wesley College school coach Tim O’Shaughnessy.
He told me this week at least she’s got an Irish coach. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t interfere. I’m here for transport and entertainment, and it has been a real bonus to see her run in Ireland these past few weeks.
It will be cross-country season back in Australia when Sophie gets back to school, and it’s never easy when school breaks up and young kids have to try and train, while away on family holidays.
It just worked out that oftentimes racing is a lot more fun than training alone, and certainly more fun to be out there taking part than sitting in the stands watching. That’s a feeling which never changes.