What a twelve months it has been for athletics! Medals at European Championships and the Commonwealth Games in the same year and the emergence of the possibly the most talented crop of junior athletes in over a generation. Participation numbers continued to break all records with more people hitting the streets than ever. The 2019 Dublin City Marathon sold out within days and now ranks fifth largest in Europe. The Belfast City Marathon finally succumbed to the groundswell of opinion that had been gathering for a number of years and will next year take place on a Sunday as well as moving to a more runner-friendly route.
The local annual cross country showpiece also had its final outing at the Greenmount campus of CAFRE and will find itself next year in Dundonald. Other events that gave us a glimpse of the outside world included the IMC Belfast meeting and the Belfast International, both held at the Mary Peters Track, while down south the Morton Games and Cork City Sports drew international stars from all over the world.
The Youths and Juniors went on a record-breaking spree never seen before scattering existing Irish and NI marks like nine-pins and our ever-dependable Paralympics athletes flew the flag impressively at the IPC European Championships in Berlin.
The International Stage
The European Athletics Championships in Berlin were hailed almost unanimously as the best ever in the 84-year history of the event. The championships showcased the best of athletics and attracted a record 460,000 spectators over the six days with an average attendance of 50,000 over the final weekend.
It was a great week for the Irish with Thomas Barr deservedly taking a bronze medal in the 400m hurdles. Leon Reid (finally got his opportunity to pull on the green singlet after a two year wait and did not disappoint with a seventh place in a very competitive 200m. And it was good to see the return of the Ciara Mageean of old who battled to the line in the 1500m and was denied a bronze medal by less than a second.
There were firsts for the Irish all over the place not least having three relay teams in action. The investment in youth continues to pay dividends with an inexperienced women’s 4 x 100m squad setting a new national record and just missing out on a final place by a mere blink of an eyelid.
Earlier Reid had been the star of the Northern Ireland team at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast in April. It was a superb Games for Ulster’s track and field athletes and that would have been the case even without the icing on the cake of Reid’s bronze medal – the first for an NI athlete since 1990. There were four other top eight places, that did not happen even once on the two previous occasions in India and Glasgow, and a NI 10,000m record for Emma Mitchell.
Hammer thrower Dempsey McGuigan started the ball rolling with a fine sixth place finish on the opening day of athletics action. Adam Kirk-Smith and teenager Kate O’Connor both took top eight spots later in the week after Reid had dazzled in the 200m. Kevin Seaward’s fourth in the marathon was a very pleasant surprise and rounded off the week in perfect style for the Ulster athletes.
Superlatives have almost been exhausted in relation to the Irish Paralympians as a team of just 10 athletes claimed nine medals, six gold and three bronze, at the World Para Athletics European Championships in Berlin. Star of the show was once again Eglinton sprinter who won both the 100m and 200m in record times. Noelle Lenihan, Orla Barry, Niamh McCarthy and Greta Streimkyte also struck gold while there were appearances too on the presentation dais for Orla Comerford (twice) and Jordan Lee.
Megan Marrs became the first NI athlete for some years to represent Great Britain in a major games when she competed at the World Indoors in Birmingham before making her outdoor debut in British colours at the Athletics World Cup in London’s Olympic Stadium.
The Golden Generation?
Sommer Lecky (put the perfect cap on an incredible 17th IAAF World Junior (U20) Championships in Tampere, Finland by taking a silver medal in the high jump. The Castlederg teenager cleared 1.90m at the first attempt to clinch second spot and set off celebrations back at her Finn Valley club in Donegal.
It was a silver Saturday for the Irish squad with Mollie Scott, Gina Akpe-Moses, Ciara Neville and Patience Jumbo Gula racing to runner-up spot in the 4 x 100m behind Germany and another national Junior record of 43.90 seconds. That was the first time Ireland had won relay medals in an international championships and the two silvers immediately doubled Ireland’s medal tally for the 32-year existence of these championships with only Antoine Burke (1994/high jump) and Ciara Mageean (2010/1500m) having visited the presentation podium before now.
The success at these championships follows the spectacular medal haul at the European U18 championships in Gyor, Hungary the previous week. Sarah Healy underlined her immense potential by completing a golden double, running a controlled race to win the 1500m to add to the 3000m gold claimed earlier in the week.
In between Healy’s triumphs, Dublin school girl Rhasidat Adeleke stormed to gold in the 200m. Sonia O’Sullivan’s daughter Sophie finished strongly in the 800m to round off the meeting by taking runner-up spot. That was appropriate given she may be the link between Ireland’s last golden generation headed by the Cobh woman and the current crop of record-breaking juniors. It brought the Irish plunder to an unprecedented three gold and one silver medals and an unthinkable top ten placing among the world’s elite nations in the overall table.
There were no major championship medals for all-rounder Kate O’Connor but the 17-year-old Dundalk girl enjoyed a remarkable year in which she has set multi-event records both inside and out. In addition to her Commonwealth performance, she also finished fourth in the Tallinn International and has plans to take up a scholarship at the University of Texas next autumn.
International meetings provided the highlights of an interesting domestic year. Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Leon Reid was the star of the Belfast International held in ideal conditions at the Mary Peters Track winning both the 100m and 200m. Despite working on a shoe-string budget the Belfast IMC Meeting provided an excellent afternoon’s sport at the same venue.
Down south the sun shone as the Morton Meeting in Dublin served up its annual generous helping of top class international athletics. Portaferry’s Ciara Mageean showed a return to top form with a fine second place in the 800m. On the 60th anniversary of Australian Herb Elliott’s world record at Santry, American Sam Prakel led ten other men under four minutes with his 3:55.80 timing, albeit slower than Elliott’s record all those years ago.
Bandon Bullet Joan Healy grabbed the headlines Cork City Sports with a national record of 22.99 seconds in the 200m. but unfortunately, there was no Letterkenny International, leaving a huge gap in the northwest calendar.
Kenyan athletes were prominent at the 37th Belfast City Marathon taking the top two spots in the men’s race as well as winning the battle for the women’s crown. Eric Koech crossed the finish line in Ormeau Park with a 2:18:19 timing. Caroline Kepchirchir claimed the women’s title in 2:41:23 but only after overcoming stern opposition from Kilkeel’s Laura Graham.
The African domination of the Dublin City Marathon continued with Ethiopians taking both titles in ideal running conditions. Asefa Bekele moved clear in the later stages to win the men’s race in 2:13:24 with Mesera Dubiso being the first woman in 2:33:49. Kenyans lifted the top prizes at the Antrim International Cross Country with Timothy Cheruiyot and Margaret Chelimo Kipkemboi proving to be the swiftest in almost ideal conditions[ .