Ireland’s bronze age treasures at Euro Indoors 2013

Photo finish of the women's 3,000 metres, with Ireland's Fionnuala Britton (top centre) taking bronze.

Photo finish of the women’s 3,000 metres, with Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton (top centre) taking bronze. (Image via The Score)

I watched the European Athletics Indoor Championships on French television. This wasn’t out of some fashionable whim – I live in Paris. Now read on…

On what political correspondents would call ‘French state television’, the athletics commentator could be best described as a hysterical, flag-waving eejit. For instance, his entire commentary for the men’s 60 metres final consisted of seven seconds of “Allez Jimmy! Jimmy! Jimmy-Jimmy-Jimmy! Oui Jimmy! Jimmy est le champion!” – declaring France’s Jimmy Vicaut the clear winner even before the photo finish had finally determined the result.

All weekend he had nothing but scorn for the Swedish TV director, who would cut to track finals and decisive field attempts instead of those vital shots of French athletes on warm-ups or laps of honour.

And don’t get him started on Renaud Lavillenie’s enormous 6.07 metre pole vault effort being controversially called a foul! Fortunately, his co-commentator Stéphane Diagana, a calm and knowledgeable analyst all weekend, saved the Swedish Embassy in Paris from being burnt to the ground by indignant French athletics fans – he spotted that the bar was out of its rest and sitting on the frame of the apparatus, thus rendering it a foul vault even though the bar stayed up. And at least it didn’t cost the Olympic champion yet another title.

Some rare respite from our French broadcaster’s overbearing amour propre came whenever an Irish athlete appeared. In the men’s 3,000 metres final, two French runners, Florian Carvalho and Yoann Kowal, optimistically hit the front with a few laps to go. But their commentating compatriot knew their goose was cooked when behind them loomed the side-parted mullet of Ciaran O’Lionaird.

All through the race the French commentator had shirked pronouncing O’Lionaird’s strange name and simply called him “L’irlandais”. Now O’Lionaird was about to blow away the two Frenchmen. “L’irlandais est nickel, j’ai peur de lui”, quivered the French commentator – “The Irishman is great, I’m scared of him”. And he was right to be.

Similarly in the women’s edition of the same distance, Fionnuala Britton’s mid-race move up to the leading pack inspired the French commentator to tell folks back home how great and tough the Irishwoman is. Again, no argument here.

So, for this foreign broadcaster to consistently voice admiration for every Irish athlete they mentioned just goes to show what a fine impression our team made this weekend in Gothenburg (or as the stadium branding rendered it, “Go:Teborg” – perhaps “Go Teborg!” was the Swedish equivalent of “Allez Jimmy!”)

It was an exciting weekend for Irish track fans, with two medals, two more finalists and a dramatic exit for our main hope – and all following up a glorious European cross country performance. Will this bronze weekend herald a golden age for Irish athletics?

By the end of the women’s 60 metres hurdles final it seemed that Ireland would be in for another championships of hard luck and near misses. Derval O’Rourke, who has made ‘championship performer’ a cliché, once again brought her ‘A’ game and came desperately close to winning her fifth championship medal. Instead she suffered her fourth fourth-place in a major final – and while it may be little consolation, that still adds up to eight top-four championship finishes.

The man who would have been king, Brian Gregan, might be hurting after his lost weekend in Gothenburg, especially after his European outdoor misfortune last summer, but his day will surely come. In his 400 metres semi-final, after an uneven first 100 metres Gregan seemed to have lost his composure by the lane break, and was already in an unfavourable position when he suffered his unfortunate tangle and exit just before the bell.

O’Lionaird, though, made up for his own disastrous 2012 and finally secured a medal to match his high profile. Having run a blistering 3:52 in the Wanamaker Mile a few weeks previously, it seemed surprising that he declared for the 3,000 metres rather than the 1,500 metres. A little adrift in the middle kilometre of the final, he seemed to have lost his chance.

However, O’Lionaird was saving his strength for a grandstand finish. Working his way back up the field, at the bell he was past the aforementioned French pair and at the shoulder of leader and pre-race favourite Hayle Ibrahimov of Azerbaijan. But O’Lionaird’s last-lap attack was seen and raised by Ibrahimov, who shifted up another gear off the last bend and ran in for the gold. O’Lionaird faded on the home straight, allowing Juan Carlos Higuero of Spain to pocket the silver.

Still, the Irishman had run the final on his own terms and came away with a medal. Free of injury and bursting with confidence, O’Lionaird could cause ructions at the World Championships in Moscow this summer.

And O’Lionaird’s bronze inspired the wittiest tweet of the weekend:

Fionnuala Britton, reigning double European cross country champion, was not in Gothenburg simply for a speed workout, despite having the World Cross Country Championships only a few weeks away. Qualifying with ease from her women’s 3,000 metres semi, she ran a similar race to O’Lionaird in the men’s final – sitting back through the first two kilometres, staying out of trouble, and then moving up for the business laps.

At the bell Sara Moreira from Portugal was far ahead and, barring a fall, had already secured the gold. Not noted for her turn of speed, Britton was left to battle for silver and bronze with Corinna Harrer of Germany and Yelena Korobkina of Russia.

Around the final bend the Irishwoman was back in the dreaded fourth place, where she had finished in the outdoor European 10,000 metres final last summer. The situation looked grim. But a cross country champion is made of hard stuff – Britton battled back on the final straight, squeezing through on the inside to push Harrer for silver but eventually oust the Russian for bronze. It was a fantastic, fighting last lap from the Irishwoman, who now has a first major track medal as the reward for her efforts.

Ireland’s other finalist, Ciara Everard, ran to within one-hundredth of a second of her personal best, but it wasn’t enough in a fast 800 metres decider. But the UCD student had won her heat and did admirably well in her first senior international championships, so her future looks promising. Likewise, Rose Anne Galligan won her 800 metres heat and Amy Foster reached the 60 metres semi-final, and even though neither made their respective finals they should take confidence from their performances.

So, what happens after Gothenburg? The European cross-country successes by Britton and her team-mates, coupled with the new indoor facility in Athlone, seem to have invigorated Irish athletics. Next up is the World Cross Country Championships in Poland later in March, when a top-10 finish for Britton would be considered a good return. There’s the World Championships in Moscow in August too, of course.

But if the Euro Indoors have whetted your appetite, make sure you catch the Irish team performing in the European Athletics Team Championships being held at the Morton Stadium in Santry, Dublin on 22-23 June. After the thrills of Goteborg 2013 let’s get behind our Irish athletes for an exciting and successful Dublin 2013 too!

Here’s how Irish television covered the last lap of Ciaran O’Lionaird’s 3,000 metre final. True, there’s an ever-so-slightly Hiberno-centric commentary by the mighty George Hamilton, but it’s okay when it’s my own side. Ahem:

YouTube/Djbilly Bop

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