It must be well over 30 years ago and we still all laugh about it. That time we went to the neighbour’s house two doors down for a drink, and a friend of theirs, already a few deep in, was gobsmacked to hear we’d all been out running on Christmas Day.
When we explained it was the Goal Mile in Belfield, and yeah, we’d gone for another training run afterwards, he was giddy with his own sense of astonishment and certain now he was in the presence of future greatness.
“And will you win the Olympics?” he demanded to know. “You will, won’t you?”
Seb Coe tells a good story about running on Christmas Day. After the track season of 1979, when he broke three world records in 41 days, his rivalry with Steve Ovett was destined to peak at the Moscow Olympics the following summer.
So of course Coe went running that Christmas morning, a solid 10-miler on the outskirts of Sheffield, followed by a few short, sharp strides. You can never be too far away from leg speed. After that he could sit down and enjoy dinner with the rest of the family… until around four o’clock, when he got that nagging feeling: what if Ovett is out doing another run? So of course out Coe went again.
It’s only a matter of days now before we start talking about next year’s Paris Olympics, and, as if to remind any athlete that Christmas Day won’t go to training waste, World Athletics on Tuesday published the list of qualifying standards for each of the 48 events – 23 men’s, 23 women’s, and two mixed.
Politely described by some as demanding, wilily seen by others as demented, they are without exception the most difficult qualifying marks in the long history of championship athletics. Any Irish athlete who makes it to Paris come the opening ceremony on July 26th, 2024 will unquestionably have earned their spot – and in many cases will have needed to break an Irish record to do so.
Here’s the deal: the athletics events – which in Paris run for the 11 days from August 2nd to 11th – have a reduced quota compared to Tokyo. There, the total athlete quota was 1,900; for Paris, it’s down to 1,810. (They have to make room for skateboarding and breakdancing, don’t they?)
Like Tokyo, qualification can come in one of two ways: by hitting the automatic qualifying standards, which World Athletics reckon will account for 50 per cent of the athlete quota, the rest coming through the world ranking system (maximum three per country, remember), which is a little more complicated and a lot more uncertain – although it does reward consistency.
For Tokyo, 27 Irish athletes qualified, about half coming through the world ranking – although if half that total make Paris they’ll be doing extremely well. With the exception of the men’s 400 metres, the bar has been raised in every event, and none more noticeable than in the men’s marathon.
The quota here is for 80 athletes, men and women. Thanks in part to the super-shoes and the extended qualifying period during the pandemic, 106 men qualified for the marathon, staged in Sapporo. So, after a qualifying standard of 2:11:30 for Tokyo, the men’s standard for Paris is a super-fast 2:08:10. For the women, 2:29:30 would have made Tokyo; 2:26:50 is required for Paris.
In April 1988, knowing he was running brilliantly, John Treacy was a late addition to the Boston Marathon. Just four days in advance, to be exact. Treacy was indeed motoring and didn’t disappoint, breaking everyone except the African duo of Ibrahim Hussein and Juma Ikangaa, and while Hussein took the win, Treacy held on for third in his marathon best of 2:09.15.
That remains the fastest marathon time by any Irish athlete, and Treacy would have needed to improve on it by over a minute to make Paris. Boston doesn’t actually count for record purposes, so the official Irish record is the 2:09:49 Stephen Scullion ran in London in 2020. He’ll need to improve on that by a minute and a half.
There is a little respite in that a top-five finish in any of the platinum label marathons (Xiamen, Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya, Seoul, Boston, London, Sydney, Berlin, Chicago, Amsterdam, New York, Shanghai, Valencia) also guarantees qualification. Good luck with that.
On the track, things are just as startling. The qualifying standard for the men’s 10,000 metres is an even 27 minutes. The Irish record is 27:39.55, set by Alistair Cragg in 2007. The number of European-born runners who have run under 27 minutes is zero. Zero!
Again a little respite: the top-eight athletes in the World Cross-Country in February who don’t have the standard will also qualify. Good luck with that.
In the sprints, the 100 metres standard has gone from 10.05 seconds to 10 flat. For Israel Oletunde, the Irish record of 10.17 he clocked in Munich last August will require some considerable shaving even if he’s to make it on the ranking quota, although he’s certainly capable and up for it. The women’s 400 metres mark has gone from 51.35 to 50.95, the good news there being Rhasidat Adeleke has already run well inside that, with her 50.53 from Munich.
Twenty years earlier, at the 2002 European Championships in Munich, Sonia O’Sullivan won silver in the 10,000 metres, setting the Irish record of 30:47.59, which still stands. It wouldn’t get her to Paris ‘24; the mark is 30:40.
Take a short sample of the Irish field event records. The long jump mark of 8.07m was set by Ciaran McDonagh in 2005; he’d need to jump 8.27m to make the Paris standard. Terry McHugh’s javelin mark is one of the best in the Irish books with his 82.75m; he’d need to throw 85.50m to make the Paris standard.
Kate O’Connor has single-handedly brought on the Irish heptathlon standards, winning a Commonwealth Games silver medal this summer, her Irish record an impressive 6,297 points. She’ll need 6,480 to make the automatic Paris standard. If any Irish athlete qualifies for a Paris field event they’ll already have deserved a medal of some sort.
Qualifying for the Olympics never has and never should be easy, for many Irish athletes a once-in-a-lifetime achievement in itself. But now, for any athlete trying to make Paris, it’s the first reminder that not even Christmas Day can go to waste.