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Bowie may not agree but Irish sport may prosper from ‘one-off’ championship changes

Tori Bowie was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Mississippi high jumper decided to celebrate when she qualified for the US Olympic trials six years ago. She was leaving a nightclub in her home state when a fight broke out and she was caught unwittingly in the crossfire. A flying bottle broke her jaw and the trials went by without her.

The London Olympics, too.

The ‘one-shot-and-you’re out’ nature of the US Olympic track and field trials has always held a grim fascination. Doubling up as the national championships since 1992, they have embodied the ruthless meritocracy of the American dream.

There are no detours, no second chances, no extenuating circumstances.

It is sport at its most Darwinian. Do or die.

Pull a hammy the week before? Tough.

Wake up with a sore throat? Boo hoo. Get your jaw broken by a flying bottle? That really is too bad but, well, step aside if you please, we have a trial to run here.

Bowie’s case may have been especially unfortunate but the trials have always been laced with hard luck stories.

Bowie would qualify for the Rio Games four years after her bout of ill fortune. She would also go on to claim a gold, a silver and a bronze — in the 4x100m relay, the 100m and the 200m respectively — while Allyson Felix, the nine-time Games medallist who won gold in the 200m in London, could only look on from afar.

Felix missed out on a spot in the 2016 team by .01 of a second at the trials.

We’ve usually done things differently in Ireland. Rare is the Olympic sport that has avoided a row of some sort or another over who should or shouldn’t get to go or how that decision should be made.

Rio alone threw up a couple of box-offs just to see who would compete in some qualifiers and a controversy over the selection of the men’s marathon runners.

How could we, as a nation, not be anything other than conflicted by major matters such as team selection when we were so befuddled over something so utterly minor like the choice of running gear in 1996 when Sonia O’Sullivan found herself having to change her gear in the tunnel in Atlanta before her 5,000m heat?

We do love a good controversy here so it was interesting to note again this week how Swim Ireland have done away with the ifs and the buts, the maybes and the whys and the why nots by adopting the US track and field model and imposing the ‘use it or lose it’ method for the European Championships team in Glasgow next month.

The national championships last April were the obvious fit and it prompted Irish-qualified swimmers to scurry back to the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin from places as far afield as the USA and the Middle East in order to squeeze through a window that also included the concurrent Commonwealth Games in Australia.

“It’s the first time that we have selected a team from sole trials which, again, is very exciting for us,” said Swim Ireland’s National Performance Director John Rudd this week.

“So, we operated the sole trials in April where swimmers had to perform over a particular period of days in one hit, if you like, to make this team.

In the past athletes have had the chance over a number of different competitions over the course of the year. 

But we felt that we had to funnel our performances into one particular period because that’s exactly what is needed on the international stage once they arrive at a stage like this. The response to that trial was exceptional.”

No argument there.

Personal Bests and national records were recorded at both senior and junior levels in Abbotstown.

Among those to step up to the plate were Shane Ryan, who became the first Irish swimmer to go below 49 seconds for the 100m freestyle, as well as Mona McSharry, Brendan Hyland and Darragh Greene, who all lowered various national best times.

The divers competed under the same pressures and the bar will continue to rise in Scotland next month with Rudd demanding that the 12-strong team come away with something having succeeded in registering half of their performances at PB levels and 65% at season’s best. That would be a big ask even for the sport’s traditional powerhouses.

It is, Rudd admits, a slight culture shift. “We don’t talk about medals because they are outside of our control,” he explained.

The one-off nature of the trials used in this instance wouldn’t fit hand in glove with every sport but they certainly possess the potential to strip away some of the potential controversies that tend to bedevil so many of our Olympic sports with such regularity.

Flying bottles and tight hamstrings aside, of course.