Like clubs across all sporting disciplines around the country, Swinford Athletics Club has the shutters pulled down for the time being, waiting for the latest lockdown restrictions to end so they can get back to the business of running, jumping, throwing and generally doing what they love most. The East Mayo club has a membership of roughly 200, the majority of them kids under the age of 18, and the latest Covid lockdown has proven the most challenging for all involved.
Aidan Hughes is the chairperson of Swinford AC. He said last week that the club managed to keep going last year right into mid-December but the two-plus months since have seen a complete cessation in all club activities, and with no clear endpoint in sight.
“We have created virtual challenges for those athletes that want to try that, and we still see athletes out on the roads doing their own thing within the 5km radius,” offered Hughes. “So it’s not a total lost cause but the majority are doing little or nothing.”
Most sports clubs have made some efforts to engage with their members in the virtual space, whether that be by hosting online coaching sessions or setting challenges. But after a year of the pandemic, the novelty of the approach is wearing thin. Covid fatigue has started to take its toll.
“Between what we push up ourselves and what comes out from Athletics Ireland, there’s plenty for them to do. All they have to do is apply themselves, but if there’s nobody coaching them or shouting at them to move it can be a different kettle of fish,” offered Hughes. “Only the dedicated ones will do it really, but those are the ones that will always succeed.”
The uncertainty over when collective sport will be allowed to resume has made it almost impossible to plan for the year ahead. Only vague, unconfirmed dates are currently in place for meets and championships later in the season but nobody can say with any confidence what the year will actually look like.
“There were plans for cross-country championships to be run at the end of February, which is basically now, but that’s not going to happen,” said Hughes. “So at the moment it’s still all up in a heap. Nobody knows what exactly is happening and it’ll be like that until they get a handle on the vaccinations, and when the numbers start to come further down. We’ll just have to wait and see. We can only go with what Athletics Ireland will allow us to do.”
One event Swinford AC will be desperately hoping can go ahead is its own three-quarter marathon, which is provisionally planned for September and is the club’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
“It would bring in much-needed funds for the development of facilities for the kids. But it was cancelled last year, and at the moment we cannot say if it’s going to happen this year because it’s permitted, and unless we get a permit from Athletics Ireland, it’s not going to happen,” offered Hughes.
Fundraising is another area in which the pandemic has bitten down hard. Swinford AC has plans for a major development of its track this year and applied for a grant from Sport Ireland earlier this month to that end, but most of the usual sources of income are on-hold. The club has reduced its membership fees for the year in an effort to reduce the pressure on its members.
“Take-up is slow, because of the uncertainty over when it’s going to come back. Trying to collect funds is quite tough,” admitted Hughes. “But if restrictions were to be loosened up somewhat, membership would head back in. We had in the region of 200 members last year and we’d be hopeful of something in around the same or maybe a little bit more this year.”
More generally, from his conversations with the members and their families, Hughes said the social benefits that young people take from being involved with clubs like Swinford AC are one of the biggest casualties of the lockdown.
“They’re doing their best,” he said of the young members. “They would love to be back, they miss their friends. That’s a big part of it, the interaction and the social aspect of it. It’s not all about running. It’s meeting up with your friends and doing collectively what they all like to do. They have their chats and having fun. That’s a huge part of what’s being missed.
“You can do as much stuff on your own as you like but doing stuff in solitary is not easy, especially when you’re young. They long to get back and get the show on the road again.
“And we’ll do it. As soon as we get a chance with the restrictions we’ll be back. We were one of the first clubs to start back up as soon as the restrictions lifted in June, and we ran all the way through until we got closed down again in December. Quite a few other clubs didn’t do that, they basically missed out on a whole year last year.
“Our club was lucky from that point of view, we drove forward and made sure there was something there for the kids. They had an outlet and I’m sure that helped and was appreciated.”