Sonia O’Sullivan: Here’s hoping enthusiasm of Daniel Wiffen and Mona McSharry will rub off on Irish athletes

The Olympics are important, but they’re not the only game in town, and it would be nice to see more Irish athletes taking part in national and international competitions in advance of Paris 2024

One of the best things about watching the success of Daniel Wiffen and Mona McSharry in Doha last week was their pure enthusiasm for the competition. Both swam three events, both made three finals, and while Wiffen crowned his effort with two historic gold medals, McSharry wasn’t far off the podium either, twice finishing fifth.

A lot was said about staging a World Aquatics Championships in the same year as the Olympics for the first time, just five months before the Games, and it’s true some of the top names did stay away. Especially from the US and Australia, given they have perhaps equally competitive Olympic trials still to come.

In the end, 30 different countries won swimming medals in Doha, a record for the World Championships, and nine more than won medals last year in Fukuoka. In all, 16 world champions from Fukuoka didn’t compete, but that didn’t necessarily take from the level of competition – and especially not the medals won.

Wiffen’s winning time of 14:34.07 in the 1,500m would have won him Olympic gold in Tokyo and Rio, and only Sun Yang’s enduring world record of 14:31.02 from London 2012 is faster on the Olympic stage. Wiffen’s confidence is certainly soaring, just over 150 days away from the Paris Olympics, and McSharry can also feel reassured about her preparations.


It’s interesting too that they’re both straight back at it, McSharry competing again with the University of Tennessee this week at the SEC Championships, in advance of next month’s NCAA championships, and Wiffen will also race again for Loughborough at this weekend’s British University Championships in Edinburgh, alongside his twin brother Nathan.

All this contrasts somewhat with the attitude and approach of a lot of Irish athletes towards the World Athletics Indoor Championships, taking place in Glasgow on the first weekend in March. As with the swimming in Doha, some of the top names are staying away, and that will always happen in an Olympic year too, but it does also open up more medal opportunities.

Some of the events in Glasgow will be rightly competitive, Dutch star Femke Bol out to win the 400m after again lowering that world indoor record to 49.24 seconds, American sprinter Noah Lyles looking to add to his three World Championship gold medals won in Budapest last year, with Britain’s medal hopes resting on their distance runner stars Josh Kerr and Laura Muir.

You can be sure Jakob Ingebrigtsen would also be racing in Glasgow if he wasn’t still recovering from an Achilles injury. In Muir’s case it does help the championships are being staged on her doorstep; still, it was a little disappointing to see just 10 Irish athletes selected for Glasgow, five individuals and the women’s 4x400m relay team.

There was also a disappointing turnout at the National Indoor Championships in Abbotstown last weekend, Sarah Lavin at least making her intentions clear by equalling her personal best in the 60m hurdles, and is now focused on Glasgow and a place in the final to cap off what has been another impressive indoor season in this Olympic year.

Sarah Healy didn’t race at Abbotstown, though she was still selected for the 1,500m for Scotland, along with Sharlene Mawdsley in the 400m, Israel Olatunde in the 60m, and Róisín Flanagan added in the 3,000m. The women’s 4x400m relay would certainly have benefited from the inclusion of Rhasidat Adeleke, who will not make the trip across the Atlantic.

It’s a pity more Irish athletes didn’t make themselves available, or even compete at their National Championships. Understandably some athletes may be injured, or simply not fit enough at this point of the season, even though to me Glasgow would provide some perfect race practice on the road to Paris.

A lot of the Irish athletes missing from Glasgow also happen to be some of the highest-funded, and maybe there needs to be a greater tie-in between that distribution of funding and competing at national and international events.

With so much cash distributed to the athletes now on this so-called Olympic cycle, there should also be more recognition on the athlete’s behalf that at the very least they should try to turn up for a National Championships. How can we expect to grow the sport from a grassroots level if our star athletes are rarely seen at home?

It got me thinking back to Sydney Olympic year, in 2000, and my approach to the World Cross Country Championships being staged in Vilamoura that March. Back then there were still long- and short-course races, and the only discussion was whether I should race one or both, so I raced both (finishing seventh in the long course, then 15th in the short course).

I can also remember Barcelona Olympic year, in 1992, when the National Championships took place at Belfield. I ran the 800m, and at the end all the Irish athletes going to Barcelona were invited out to the infield to be introduced to the crowd.

These were my first Olympics, and I was so excited to be recognised alongside some of the great Irish athletes of the time such as Marcus O’Sullivan and Frank O’Mara, who showed me the ropes and made me feel like I belonged there, even when things were only just getting started.

Ireland also has a good record of success at the World Indoors, winning 10 medals in all – six gold, two silver, two bronze – although it’s been 18 years since the last of those were won by Derval O’Rourke, gold in the 60m hurdles in Moscow in 2006, where she also set the Irish record that still stands. Later that year Derval continued her good form with a silver medal at the European Championships.

Olympic year or not, I do think there needs to be greater importance placed on the National Championships, both outdoors and indoors, where athletes are required to turn up.

Even some of the emerging athletes could do with more race experience, look beyond the training track. There is so much more than just turning up to compete on the national stage. It’s the connections you make and that energy you take with you so that if you do ever get to line up in an Olympic final then you realise you are not alone, there’s a whole country lining up with you.

It’s important too that athletes, particularly in an Olympic year, compete on the national stage as a way of showing some gratitude to their clubs each year.

Because fast times are just a small part of the picture, records are there to be broken, but the list of medal winners stays forever. And I know where I’d rather my name to be.