How do you restore public faith and integrity in athletics?

Athletics Ireland's new High Performance Director, Paul McNamara, speaks to Newstalk.com

BY Cian Roche 16:53 Monday 3 April 2017, 16:53 3 Apr 2017

Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa

The Olympic Games in Rio last year may have made headlines for the wrong reasons at times, but the performances by the Irish athletes were some of the country's best at a major championship.

The showpiece for athletics, Rio 2016 saw Thomas Barr finish 0.05 seconds outside of a medal place in the final of the 400m hurdles, Sara Treacy make the 3,000m steeplechase final and Fionnuala McCormack finish 20th in the marathon.

Rob Heffernan finished 6th in the 50km and the promising Ciara Mageean made the semi-final of the 1,500m semi-final. A month after that, she smashed her personal best at a Diamond League meeting in Paris. The results came just weeks after her bronze medal win at the European Championships in July.

The work of the Atheltics Ireland cannot be understated when taking into account these results, but there continues to be a level of distrust between the general public when it comes to the sport.

In recent years, doping scandals and allegations have clouded the sport and caused followers and casual fans to have their doubts when it comes to results, world and Olympic records, and medalists.

Even today, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) president Sebastien Coe was forced to apologise to athletes after the world governing body claimed hackers, thought to be from Russia, broke into their database of confidential medical records.

Writing for this website, Off The Ball presenter Ger Gilroy suggested that athletics should be "torn apart and rebooted".

Integrity

So, where does one begin when trying to heal the image of a sport so regularly tarnished?

"Integrity is a recurring theme whenever our sport is discussed," Paul McNamara, the newly appointed Director of High Performance at Athletics Ireland, tells Newstalk.com. "Drugs becomes an issue, integrity becomes an issue. It’s absolutely critical that a clean sport is put forward and put first.

"Irish athletes have always been challenged when they go overseas with results that have question marks put after them.

"It’s a barrier we faced before and we continue to face. I think things are improving in that regard. If you look at the world of endurance running, look at the standard of 5,000 or 10,000 metre performances since 1995 to present.

"Arguably one could pick a date in 1995 that started the beginning of the EPO [Erythropoietin - a hormone which red blood cell production] boom. That’s done untold damage to endurance running in Ireland and in other places. It changed the landscape and those performances skyrocketed for approximately 10 years to unfathomable levels.

"It’s dropped off drastically since. There’s an obvious reason for that.

"Now, for the 12-year-old in Tipperary or Galway that dreams of Olympic medals, that’s becoming a more achievable goal again.

"That’s something that is achievable and I think our sport is cleaner than it has ever been before. It’s certainly not entirely clean, but it’s something that people at a very high level are working towards."

Thomas Barr reacts after finishing fourth in the final of the 400m hurdle in Rio. His time of 47.97 was just 0.05 seconds off bronze. His result was a new Irish national record. Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Transparency

McNamara has a background in endurance running, having been crowned National Cross Country champion three times here in Ireland, and is responsible for developing the endurance programme within the association.

With more than 25 years in the sport and 10 years with Athletics Ireland, he succeeds Kevin Ankrom in the role and will begin in an official capacity from 10 April.

His message to rebuilding the reputation of the sport is simple.

"Communication, transparency and integrity will all be absolutely critical," he says.

"High performance athletes are asked to have faith in systems, the people and the processes that are in place and will be put in place.

"Success at a very high level is attainable. It has been achieved by Irish athletes before and will be achieved by Irish athletes again.

"As the director, I’d like to have open communication with athletes and coaches. Getting out there and meeting people will be critical to success in the role.

"Guys who know me and know what I’ve done previously, will know there’s an immense work ethic. There is an athlete sensitive approach.

"There is an integrity and there is a commitment to our sport. Guys who don’t know me, will have to take it on faith that these are the values I’m going to bring to the role."

Paul McNamara (extreme right) says transparency is crucial in rebuilding the image of athletics. Image: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Off The Ball

Newsletter

The very best bits of Off The Ball delivered every week