The first ever female to fill the post, Georgina Drumm - born in Dundalk and now living in Ballymascanlon - has been President of Ireland Athletics for the past four years.
Could explain the various strands that constitute Athletics Ireland?
Athletics Ireland caters for track & field, cross-country, road running, mountain and trail running, ultra running and race walking. A full calendar of events is prepared in the summer for the following year as our sport is an all-year round sport. Our meetings would have representatives from all the strands within athletics, Provincial Councils, Irish Schools Athletics, Irish Universities, Athletics Northern Ireland, Master, Juvenile, Senior Athletics and High Performance.
The number of clubs under your jurisdiction?
Currently we have 360 clubs affiliated from all four provinces. Running alongside this there are clubs affiliated to Athletics Northern Ireland. All are eligible to compete in our championships and other events. Last year we had 64,000 registered members. The latest registration numbers in County Louth are very encouraging, with an increase of one percent on this time last year.
What fired your interest in athletics?
My involvement began many years ago as a parent. After that I got caught up in administration with my club. I did a bit of coaching, but soon realised that my strength was in competition and administration. Gerry Wallace volunteered me at a national council meeting to undertake an IT project in Navan with the national body, which was really the start of me totally immersing myself in athletics. I was elected National Secretary in 1996 and held that position until 2006, when the association embarked on a new strategy to engage a full-time business manager with the role of Honorary National Secretary no longer required. I continued with involvement in competition as a committee member.
I was elected as chair of Athletics Louth, Athletics Leinster, then onto chair of competition and Vice-President. In 2016 I was elected President of Athletics Ireland. My second term should have been completed in April of this year, but with the world going through some challenging and uncertain times, the Congress was postponed until a later date to be confirmed.
When you eventually hand over, will you stay involved?
It would be my intention to continue my involvement through competition. Athletics Louth has an extremely talented group of young athletes. Patience Jumbo Gula, Gina Akpe Moses, Israel Olatunde and Kate O’Connor are wonderful talents and I am looking forward to watching them progress through to the senior ranks.
Who did you succeed?
Since the formation of Athletics Ireland we have had five Presidents. Ciarán O Cáthain was my immediate predecessor and I was the first woman elected as President. So, from a historic point of view, it was a pretty big milestone and one which I acknowledge was a big step for the members to take. I was also the recipient in 2015 of a European Athletics Women’s Leadership Award, and am currently the Athletics Ireland delegate to European Athletics and World Athletics. So, a pretty full agenda which I enjoy enormously.
You are also a member of the Olympic Federation of Ireland – does that position automatically go to Athletics Ireland President?
Positions for the Executive Board of the Olympic Federation of Ireland are elected, with all federations entitled to nominate one candidate. No sport is guaranteed a position. I was very fortunate to be nominated by my sport, and the federation selected me to the Board in February 2017.
Your early days as President would have coincided with the ticket controversy surrounding the 2016 Rio Olympics. How difficult was that in the aftermath for you and the governing body?
As President of Athletics Ireland I was at the Rio Olympics, where we had a great team of athletes. Every day we had someone competing either in heats, quarter-finals, semi-finals and indeed finals, with Thomas Barr just missing out on a Bronze medal in the 400m hurdles. I was, of course, aware that there were issues, learning more from home than at the Games. It was primarily when I got home that it all started to really take centrestage. There is a lot written about those days and the fall-out from the Games. However, can I say that the work undertaken by the current Board of the Olympic Federation of Ireland and its executive staff has been enormous. Initially, after the election, there were meetings on demand, or at least monthly, and consultative meetings, with the Sport Federations and our stakeholders. New sponsorships were awarded and new relationships forged with Sport Ireland and The Institute of Sport, all very positive moves that I believe all sports are appreciative of. Currently we have managed to streamline the meetings with the executive staff taking on more responsibility, particularly in the operation side of things, while the Board is now more strategic. Like all other organisations, remote meetings have become the norm.
Let’s stay with the Olympics. What’s the criteria for anyone hoping to make the Ireland team?
Qualifications standards or marks are set by World Athletics to be achieved within a certain window; it varies depending on the discipline. Athletics Ireland prepared a long list of potential athletes who could achieve the standard. At a certain period in time it is reduced and finally the list of Athletes who have achieved the qualification mark is submitted to the Olympic Federation of Ireland. Throughout this process, Athletics Ireland’s High Performance Director works closely with the OFI preparing for the Games.
You were at Rio in an official capacity four years ago – was that your first Olympics?
I recall my first thought of going to a Games was when Sydney was in the frame for selection. My sister, Monica, many years previous had emigrated to Australia, and I flippantly said if Sydney gets the nod I will be there. So, I had to keep my word. That started the process to not only go to Australia, but to get to an Olympics.
There is something special about the Olympics. Sydney in 2000 was super. The management was excellent, transportation second to none, everything about that Games stood out in my mind and will remain as a lasting memory. I recall getting a pass into the athletes’ village and walking around with some of the management team. Here were world-class athletes, people who I would only have seen on telly; it was quite surreal.
Magic Monday, of course, with Sonia O’Sullivan’s silver medal performance. Then there was Kathy Freeman winning the 400m in front of a home crowd, Michael Johnson taking his final 400m individual performance, and Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian, winning a stunning 10,000m race. Sonia put in such a battling performance, leading for a long time, and becoming the first Irish woman to win a Track & Field Olympic medal.
You missed London in 2012?
I was deeply involved at national competition level and couldn’t go. It was right in the middle of our competition calendar here; but I did get the opportunity to be part of the presentation party in Cork City Hall in 2016 where Robert Heffernan was awarded a bronze medal, retrospectively, for the 50k Walk at the London Games. What a celebration that night was. Of course it wasn’t Robert’s first major medal, as he had won the World 50k Championship in Moscow in 2013.
Sonia O’Sullivan has made a big impression on you?
I have crossed paths with Sonia many times over the years since that fateful night in Sydney. A truly lovely and talented lady. She competed in numerous major championships after that, and I was fortunate to be the team manager for the World Indoor Championships in Portugal where she competed. She also competed in many national championship days in Morton Stadium where the number of spectators was huge each time, all there to see the darling of Irish athletics. I met her again in Hungary when Sophie, her daughter, competed in the European U18 Championships, securing a silver medal for Ireland. And only last year I had the honour of presenting her with the Athletics Ireland Hall of Fame Award on her 50th birthday in Dublin. There were many more occasions over the years, but these are the most memorable.
This year’s Olympic celebration has gone by the board – would you be hopeful of it taking place in 2021?
We must be positive and hope that the world can continue to battle this virus. Planning will continue – there are still many questions to be answered. Athletes will still focus on Tokyo 2020 even though it will be held in 2021. There are many major championships to be held before next August, among them World and European Indoor Championships, and not least the European Cross-Country Championships scheduled for the Sport Ireland Campus, Fingal, Dublin, in December. The staging of all the international events is going to be challenging, but we have to keep focusing on the path ahead and do our best to help eradicate this illness, using the very strong messaging that’s coming out from the government. Paris 2024 is also on the horizon with many young athletes looking at that goal. There is a great list of young hopefuls looking at that time frame, so the future is very bright for athletics.
Who were the Athletes to catch your eye as a youngster?
We used to watch all the big events on TV, Eamonn Coghlan, John Treacy, Frank O’Meara, Marcus O’Sullivan, Ray Flynn, all big names and all based in America. On the women’s side we had role models in Maeve Kyle, Susan Smith, Catherina McKiernan, Derval O’Rourke, Karen Shinkins, and, of course, Sonia to name a few. I remember watching John Treacy on the telly with my mam in 1984, as he competed in the Marathon in Los Angeles with Jimmy Magee on the commentary. How could you not get hooked after that?
Athletics was going against the grain, you could say, you coming from the Heeney family in Castletown, where Gaelic football, greyhound racing and coursing reigned?
The GAA and coursing were the number one sports, but my grandfather, Johnny Clarke, was also into pigeon racing. We had a cousin, Eamon McMahon, who ran with Dun Dealgan AC and had moved up through the ranks, so there was a bit of history in the family with athletics. When I first got involved at national level, I am not sure what they thought of it. My dad used to talk to Jim McKeown, as Jim was a member of St. Peter’s Athletic Club. The great Noel Carroll was a club member, and it is now my club. I was in Vilamoura in Portugal for the World Half-Marathon Championships when I heard, ‘young Heeney, hello’. I turned around and who should I meet only Jim McKeown and his wife who were on holiday. A small world alright.
Any time for football?
While athletics takes front stage and centre, I also enjoy going to the odd match. Last year was a success for the family with my son, Oisín (cutout), on the winning Naomh Moninne side in the senior hurling championship, and my husband, Paul, the manager. Another son, Ciarán, chose the football route and enjoyed his years playing. He was a member of the Louth minor team and selected as the player of the year. Our grandkids are very active on the GAA scene, which we are very proud of. Colm, our oldest grandchild, set himself a target of cycling 250km over two weeks during these unprecedented times and all proceeds went to Pieta House. That’s an example to us all. So sport plays a big part in our family lives, encouraged and supported by all.
And there is – and always has been – music and dancing there?
While the boys and the men were involved in outdoor sports, myself and my sisters were sent to music and dancing. Mam was a great entertainer and dad had a wonderful voice, so between them some of that musical talent had to rub off. I tried the piano and the violin but practising in a small house with plenty of siblings, it was not unfamiliar to hear someone shout out ‘who let the cat out’, so that didn’t last too long. Dancing was my thing. My sister, Melliora, was my teacher and I enjoyed travelling on the bus to Newry Feis, Donegal for the Ulster Championships, Armagh Feis and the wonderful Mansion House in Dublin. I thought I was travelling all over the world. The big Feis in town was Feis Muirhevna, held in the Friary Hall. I thought it was huge and the dancers were stunning. Another sister, Olivia (Cahill), and Melliora (Duffy) were super dancers and won many titles at Ulster and All-Ireland level. Melliora would have been the first to return to Dundalk as All-Ireland champion. Both sat their exams and became excellent teachers. Their pupils continued the winning streak, both having major success throughout their teaching career. In later years my younger sister, Martina, and nephew, Robert, won Ulster Championships on the same day representing both sisters’ classes, a very proud day.
You took to the stage yourself?
I continued to dance and had some success. When I started a nursing career in Dublin, it soon became apparent that in a nursing home with student nurses on shift work and sleeping at different times of the day, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with practice, nursing duties and study at the same time. I continued dancing more for the love of it rather than at a competitive level. When I returned to Dundalk and got married I took up teaching with Melliora and eventually opened my own class. I also enjoyed Ceili and set-dancing and taught it for many years. Through the set-dancing I got involved in preparing teams for Scór with the local St. Patrick’s GAA club, and with Dundalk Gaels as a member of the Ceili team. I met some great people there and enjoyed that aspect of the dancing.
Music and dance takes you to many places and one such turn on the road brought me to Macra in Bellurgan, where we had a small group of enthusiastic singers and performers. Catherine Arthur, Frances McCrystal, and the Toner family are a few that come to mind. We entered the local Macra competition and enjoyed it so much we branched into Tops of the Town. I wrangled my mammy into rehearsing. Patsy Murphy and his merry men joined and made up the band. From there I got involved with Bernie Baldwin, who asked me if I would like to work with him on his forthcoming show ‘The King and I’. While I was hesitant at first I accepted the challenge. It was a decision that I never regretted, Bernie was a consummate professional and expected nothing but the best from his team. I enjoyed a great working relationship with Bernie and was involved with ‘Oliver’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. Another area I stepped into was choreographing. ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’, produced by Gerry Roddy, was a major success, and Gerry won many awards for directing and producing.
You’d have looked in as John Treacy won his two World Cross-Country Championships and then took silver in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – how much did it mean to you to meet the great Waterford runner when you became Athletics President and he was Sport Ireland Executive?
I had met John long before I became President of Athletics Ireland. We had numerous meetings and discussions on the amalgamation and formation of Athletics Ireland, and met on many more occasions throughout the last 20 years. In 2019, on the 40th year of John retaining his World Cross-Country title, I was honoured, on behalf of Athletics Ireland, to host a luncheon to celebrate that marvellous achievement. It was a very special afternoon with many of his teammates and family in attendance.
Are sports books your favourite read?
I do read a lot of sports books, particularly ones that recount the history of Irish athletics. There are many great publications by sports clubs who over the last few years have celebrated anniversaries – Glenmore AC produced one such publication. I have a nice little stack of books from other clubs which always keep me entertained. Although when I did have the time to read books my favourite author was John Grisham. Athletics, family and grandchildren take up any spare time that I have now, which is lovely.
What about films?
Golden Oldies are my favourite. Paul and I watch The Quiet Man a lot; I like Agatha Christie, and most of the old musical films, although I did like Moulin Rouge. Perhaps when I retire from this role I will renew my friendship with films again.
And the telly?
I don’t really watch much telly, with competition at various levels taking up much of my time. Indoor competition commences in January, Track and Field in April all through the summer and Cross-Country in October. During the winter I like looking at Dancing with the Stars and some short, snappy programmes that I don’t need to concentrate much on. Documentaries will hold my attention and I do like David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet.
Who is your all-time hero from the world of sport?
Very difficult, but from an athletics point I think Ronnie Delany is a superb example of a hero, against the odds, performing on the biggest stage in the world, still contributing and looking after himself, he is surely worth a mention.
The table’s laid and you’ve to put four sitting down – who would they be?
That is a hard question, as I don’t ever recall sitting at a table with only four people but I will give it a shot. Usain Bolt would definitely be on the list, just to recall all his marvellous achievements and his new life after athletics; Maeve Kyle, whose sporting career covered two disciplines, hockey and athletics (can you imagine the chat?); Brian Cody on his very successful career as Kilkenny manager for the last 22 years; and Phil Collins, to keep us entertained.
If you had to sing a song to save your life, what would it be?
Singing would not be my best talent. I have two lovely daughters, Carina and Clodagh, who have fine voices, and my cousins, Catherine and Ann Carroll, can carry a party. My nieces are wonderful violinists along with my son, Oisín. So I won’t upset the applecart there. To save my life, I would be better off not singing. We will leave it at that.