World champion Olive calls on public to back Irish in Rio

Here I speak to Cork’s newest World Champion Olive Loughnane about life, doping and Ireland’s chances in Rio


NESTLED in a quiet corner of Riordan’s Bar at the crossroads of Coachford, Olive Loughnane sits contently.

It’s been a number of weeks since the gold medal was placed around her neck, but locals are still shaking the hand of the 2009 World Champion. Galway-born Loughnane can’t speak highly enough of those who welcomed her, her husband Martin Corkery and three children, but something doesn’t sit quite right.

She’s struggling to say the words ‘world champion’. The possibility of saying them has been seven years coming. Loughnane blushes with the realisation that they’re just words, but they’re two that carry enormous weight. zzzOliveLoughnanereceivesgoldmedalJul16_large

Having finished second in the 20k walk at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, 49 seconds behind the winner, Loughnane hit the town with the Australians and partied hard. Physically and mentally she’d given it her all, but amid the celebrations, the Australians congratulated her as the ‘true champion’. They were suspicious of the gold medal winner, Russian Olga Kaniskina, but Loughnane simply smiled at their cynicism.
Five years later in August 2014, those suspicions became rumours, and in January 2015 it was revealed to the world that Kaniskina would be banned by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada), and her results from the 2009 World Championships were redundant. A text message confirmed the revelation and an upgrade for Loughnane.

“I was in Roches Stores and I rang Martin in the lift, which is the most useless place to ring someone at the best of times!” the mother-of-three laughs.

With members of the general public within earshot, Loughnane whispered the news, never once imaging this was how she’d find out she was world champion.

“It was six years on and I still wasn’t sure what would happen. I always wondered how I’d react, but almost in a stepping back role and reflecting on my career, I thought it’s never going to happen.”

But it did, and Loughnane boasts two medals from the same race.

“That’ll surely be a good question for a pub quiz some time,” Loughnane jokes, adding that both medals ‘are in the press with the good Delft!’

That night in Berlin, Loughnane stood tallest on the podium, all 1,63m of her, and remembers Kaniskina looking up at her. But, until now, she could only guess what those eyes were saying.
Like Loughnane, Kaniskina has a maths degree, but Loughnane had a lot more going for her outside of sport, and it’s the very reason she’s never let doping revelations get to her.

“If I was to be bitter about it, I’d be taking the good out of now as well. I parked it, I genuinely parked it. You know, at least I got a medal. There’s so many girls out there who don’t.
“The systematic doping is ridiculous, but I do genuinely see those girls as victims. They don’t have a choice and I’ve met two athletes who refused to be part of the system. There’s not that many of them, but they did get to compete, but gradually the authorities put too many obstacles in their way.
“One of them was a female athlete, was very good and competing around Europe. We were around the same level, and in a way she’s been robbed too, because it was their way or the highway.
“It’s a different mindset. I had options if walking didn’t work out. I had a job and a career to fall back on. A lot of the time, they don’t. If I was in the same boat as those girls, I don’t know what I’d do.”
The 40-year-old CSO statistician’s empathy is remarkable, especially too when your consider her younger sister, Ann, was also an athlete touched by Russian scandal.
In 2003 she finished second in the 5,000-metre walk at the IAAF World Youth Championships, only to lose to Vera Sokolova. In 2015, the IAAF confirmed that Sokolova was provisionally suspended after a sample from an out-of-competition control had been found positive for a prohibited substance. Jokingly Ann hopes for her own upgrade.

Ann Loughnane with her

Ann Loughnane with her parents at the 2003 IAAF World Youth Championships.

Olive’s came at this year’s World Championships in Amsterdam. The gold medal replica doesn’t match the original mold, with a walker centred in the middle is amiss in this version, but for Loughnane, it’s the silver medal that matters most.

“To have the gold and to be able to say I’m World Champion is incredible, but I don’t think it would be right to take the silver off me. There’s much more sentimental value to it.

“Obviously it would have been lovely to get presented with it in Ireland and get bit of a crowd, but it was important to bring it full circle by bringing me back to where it happened.

“Athletics is coming from a difficult place and the IAAF were trying to do it right and it was the best thing really, all things considered. And, it wasn’t just important for me, it was important for the sport, to give it weight and make it a special occasion,” says Loughnane, who was joined in Holland by her family and friends.

There to put the medal around her neck was Seb Coe, a four-time Olympic medalist and president of the IAAF, and a man Loughnane has much respect for given their ties to her former home in Loughrea, Galway. They spoke about his time spent there in the Seventies competing in 5k races alongside Eamonn Coughlan and Brendan Foster, but Coe has come a mammoth way since then.

“Seb has the capability to handle the presidency. People wondered if he had the stomach because it’s a serious position to be in in this climate, but he’s proved he has. The next couple of years are crucial and it’s going to take some very strong action, but he’s been around the block and he knows his stuff.”

Seb Coe with Olive Loughnane.

Seb Coe with Olive Loughnane.

As to Ireland’s chances at the Rio Olympics, Loughnane’s upgrade puts things into perspective.

“It’s very important for people to get behind the Irish team. On the one hand, for years, if people weren’t getting into finals or up there with their name in lights, there was criticism, which is understandable to an extent because people ultimately want you to be successful, but some of these athletes were training their backsides off and it was never going to happen given what was going on.

“Like when I competed in London (13th), I was in far better shape than I was for the Worlds in 2009, and I’d moved up a level. But it was like competing against a travelator in the airport, you’re walking alongside them and you hadn’t a hope!”

But, her hope of a medal in Rio for Ireland’s athletes lies in her former coach, Toger AC man Rob Heffernan.

“Cork is so strongly represented with Lizzie Lee and Michelle Finn, but it’s the Rob show, so hopefully he’ll be able to pull out a big performance. 50k is very unpredictable, but he’s shown he can do it in the past and I really hope he gets it done because he’s worked so hard.”

Amid our chat, Loughnane mentions a poignant anecdote, and the penny drops.

“I met one of the kids who finished second in a West Muskerry AC primary schools event in Macroom last year and who had come second in a race. She said to me after that she was hoping for an upgrade…she was just 7!”

It’s a sad tale, but the silver lining is Loughnane’s legacy of hard work and honesty, for it’s that very thing that will truly inspire a generation of Irish athletes to come.

OLIVE LOUGHNANE ON:

TINDER IN THE OLYMPIC VILLAGE…

“It’s going to be carnage!”

EMPATHY FOR DOPERS…

“If I was to be bitter about it, I’d be taking the good out of now as well. I parked it, I genuinely parked it. You know, at least I got a medal. There’s so many girls out there who don’t.
“The systematic doping is ridiculous, but I do genuinely see those girls as victims… I had options if sport didn’t work out. I had a job and a career to fall back on. A lot of the time, they don’t. If I was in the same boat as those girls, I don’t know what I’d do.”

SEB COE…

“He has the capability for it and you’d wonder would you have the stomach for it because it’s a serious position to be in in this climate, but he’s certainly proved he has. He’s been around the block, he’s operated in politics, he’s been head of the organising committee for London 2012 so he knows his stuff.”

RETIREMENT…

“It was a big change going back to a normal working environment. It was very different from being out with the lads on a training camp!

“I found it a difficult transition. Competing is obviously a massive high, and I don’t think you realise it until you finish. Like, I still can’t fathom that I’ve been to four Olympics, six World Championships.”

OLYMPIC TATTOOS…
“I’ll hardly get one now! I had contemplated one in the past, but a coach pulled me aside and said ‘Olive, you’re not that kind of girl!’

MEDAL HOPES…
“Cork is so strongly represented with Lizzie Lee and Michelle Finn, but it’s the Rob show, so hopefully he’ll be able to pull out a big performance. 50k is very unpredictable, but he’s shown he can do it in the past and I really hope he gets it done because he’s worked so hard.”

BEING WORLD CHAMPION…
“I don’t think it will sink in. I remember being out training after Berlin and thinking Gillian O’Sullivan was amazing the way she won the silver medal in 2003, and that was after I won mine, so I don’t know if it’ll ever sink in.”

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