James Sullivan is currently spending some time overseas and is using the opportunity to check out local sports facilities in various places.  Here he talks to us about athletics in Australia and the lessons that can be applied closer to home.

There are very few things that Australians don’t do well it seems (their very un-festive Christmas Day on the beach being one of them of course!). While the rest of the world suffers from a never ending recession and falling currencies this proud nation has withstood most of what the Global Economic Crisis has thrown at it and has become the number one emigration destination for Europeans desperate to avoid the farcical levels of unemployment that are plaguing the European Union, and Ireland in particular.

Notwithstanding the recent detrimental floods to hit Queensland this country more often than not is baked in burning sunshine providing an ideal climate for surfing, beach volleyball and indeed any type of outdoor activity. Australians certainly love their sport and their lifestyle is very much exercise driven as a result. In addition the land down under is also one of the world’s great holiday destinations with an abundance of unique wildlife, buzzing cities, and astonishing coastal and bushland scenery.

Sally Pearson, a hot tip for Olympic glory

Track and field is another area where this country is currently excelling with numerous athletes claiming Olympic and World Championship medals over the last few years. In particular Steve Hooker has shown himself to be almost unbeatable in the Pole Vault and has his sights set on Sergei Bubka’s iconic world record, and Sally Pearson is shaping up to be one of the prime contenders for sprint hurdles gold at the London Olympics next year.

However this strength extends far beyond the elite level of the sport. Throughout Melbourne and the rest of Victoria the governing body Athletics Victoria runs a state wide inter-club track and field competition called the AV Shield. The championship is divided into 6 regions and incorporates 13 track meets from October to February with the top clubs qualifying for the AV Shield final.

Each athlete can compete in as many different events as he or she wishes with many people attempting as much as possible in order to score more points for their respective clubs. It is not unusual to see somebody warming up for a Javelin competition just minutes after running a lung-bursting 1500m. The idea behind the AV Shield is to get as many people of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes competing in track and field. There is of course a strong competitive element to it with every club aiming to qualify for the Grand Final but the main emphasis is on getting people to actually enjoy competing in this great sport and not being afraid to give a new event a try.

Looks like Richmond Harriers believe in giving everything for the club!

Through the kindness of Richmond Harriers AC I got the opportunity to participate in a couple of these meets as a trial member giving me the chance to experience this great competition first hand. One of the big concerns people have (myself included) when joining running clubs and signing up for competitions is that everybody else will be much faster. The questions “will I be quick enough?”, “will there be other people there who run to my level?” etc. crop up time and time again. The AV Shield banishes any such worries. Each event is graded with the fastest people running together and the slowest doing likewise. If 65 seconds is as fast as you can sprint 400m then not to worry, you will simply be paired with other runners with similar personal bests. This gives everybody a proper sense of actual competition and a chance to win a race rather than simply running against the clock. Of course you always get the odd person who will enter a slower race just to claim a victory but thankfully this is a rare occurrence.

Athletics Victoria and the local clubs have really fostered a great culture of grassroots athletics and after seeing such a well organised event that caters to absolutely everybody it makes me feel quite sad that such a setup does not exist in Ireland.

There has been a huge running boom throughout the Western World in general and Ireland in particular over the last few years with more and more people signing up for road races such as 10Ks, Marathons and Ultra Marathons. Record numbers ran in last year’s Dublin Marathon and it appears that ploughing through the muscle aching torture of the iconic distance is becoming more and more popular among recreational runners.

Getting specific about my own country though this mass participation success does not tell the full story about the state of the sport. While the popularity of road running is at an all-time high track and field is suffering from low participation numbers. The reason for this is simple; there is no structure in place to develop a grassroots culture in the sport. In Dublin there are graded meets which is the closest thing we have to Victoria’s AV Shield. However such an event still attracts mainly runners who are of a high level and a 2:30 runner for 800m would be very quickly dropping off the pace in even the slowest race. In Ireland there very much exists an elite culture when it comes to track and field. If you are a 55 second runner for 400m there is no future for you in the sport which is why so many give up and end up running marathons or other road races.

Maybe if we took a leaf out of Athletics Victoria’s book and got more of the average Joes running 400m, 800m etc. rather than just road running events then perhaps our country would have a much greater interest in the sport of Athletics. Just a thought Athletics Ireland if you’re reading!

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