IN ALL FAIRNESS - Keller and Mawdsley can feel hard done by

It is hard not to feel that Tipperary has been left short-changed by the Olympic process over the past year.

What should be a time where we look forward in anticipation to this great spectacle of sport every four years (five years in this case because of the pandemic) that is the Olympic Games, and certainly we in Tipperary have a reason to really get into it with Ballina’s Finn McGeever competing in swimming.

However, if right was right, there really should be two more competing from the Premier County in Aisling Keller and Sharlene Mawdsley who suffered similar anguish after failing to be selected to compete, despite being the ones that booked the Irish spots in their events in sailing and athletics, respectively.

The image of Ireland and the Olympics has taken a battering over the last twenty-five years, from Michelle Smith’s four medal haul in swimming in Atlanta in 1996, medals she still holds despite them being tainted in many people’s eye because of what subsequently occurred with a tampered urine sample a few years later. Move onto Athens in 2004 and the gold medal won in Show-jumping by Cian O’Connor being stripped after his horse Waterford Crystal tested positive for a banned substance.

Beijing and London proved to be great successes with the large medal hauls, particularly by our boxers, before more woe in 2016 when in the ring Irish fighters were on the end of some questionable officiating, while away from the sporting events, the arrest of then OCI (Olympic Council of Ireland) President Pat Hickey for ticketing irregularities, left Ireland with a tainted reputation.

In fairness, the OCI, now rebranded the Olympic Federation of Ireland, has done a lot right in the last five years to restore its image on the world stage and this year they are sending the largest ever Irish team to a Summer Games with 114 athletes making their way to Japan. However, it’s hard not to feel that Aisling Keller and Sharlene Mawdsley should be among them. To outsiders, this might seem parochial as we all want to see our own do well and there is an element to it. However, the process by which they were left on the outside looking in leaves a lot to be desired.

In fairness to the Olympic Federation of Ireland, they aren’t the issue here as they only ratify the squads submitted by Athletics Ireland and the Irish Sailing Association to compete in their events and under their rules, they have the power to pick and choose their competitors. In normal circumstances, that is fine, however when you consider Aisling Keller and Sharlene Mawdsley actually are the reason Ireland are competing in the 4x400m Mixed Relay and the Laser Radial sailing events in Tokyo, their snubs are even harsher.

In fairness, both ladies knew the rules before the start, but it still doesn’t make it any easier to accept. In Aisling Keller’s case, she wasn’t even afforded the chance to compete for the spot in Tokyo as after the pandemic virtually shut down every sport in the spring of last year and forced the postponement of the Games by twelve months, Irish Sailing made the decision not host a trial after the final qualification events were cancelled, and so nominated 2016 Olympic silver medallist Annalise Murphy to go to Tokyo, over a year in advance.

Now, Annalise might well be our best chance of winning a medal but being handed the opportunity was blatantly unfair, when over the last twelve months, a competition could have taken place on these shores for both, or indeed Aoife Hopkins and Eve McMahon who were also in the running.

For Sharlene Mawdsley, she suffered the same fate after being on the Ireland 4x400m Mixed Relay team who at the World Championships in May, booked our spot in Tokyo. In that final, Sharlene ran a blistering leg and to many athletics observers, was nailed on to be on the plane to Japan, barring injury. However, it wasn’t to be, and it is hard not to feel like this was always going to be the case, and even if she didn’t pull up in the final of the 400m at the National Track & Field Championships, she would still have missed the flight.

Where competitors for Olympics are based on selection rather than out and out competition, it is open to bias and influence and it is hard not to feel that Keller and Mawdsley just didn’t have the right connections with the right people compared to others. Indeed, any sporting organisation with a selection policy for Olympic Games are only creating a target for their own backs, rather than going with the safe and fairest policy of choosing the competitors who got you there in the first place. After that if injury forces a competitor to pull out, then and only then should a selection panel be required to choose their replacement.