Most sports people will tell you that following up on success is more difficult than getting your first taste of it and over the past twelve months Maltese athletes have proved that theory right.
2003 was always going to be a hard act to follow after Malta scaled new heights with a record medal haul secured at the Games for the Small States of Europe, and Tanya Blake becoming the first ever Maltese athlete to achieve the minimum qualification time to qualify for the Olympic Games.
And so it proved to be in 2004!
Most athletes looked below par this year and few showed anything nearing their previous years’ form. But undoubtedly the biggest disappointment came from Blake who fell well short of her potential in Athens, and had what the athlete herself described as “probably the worst race of my entire life”.
This is not to say that the year was a complete write-off. Far from it, for there were many pointers indicating that the future could well be quite bright.
The recent policy of fostering as many qualified coaches as possible – another course was held during the year by Joel Severe which resulted in over twenty new IAAF Level I coaches - is bearing fruit as they are bringing through a healthy group of promising athletes. Twice they were asked to show their potential on an international stage in 2004 and on both occasions they responded brilliantly.
On the first occasion, a group of twelve young athletes were invited to take part in the excellently organised All Ireland Juvenile Championships and proved that they could hold their own with Ireland’s best. A couple of weeks later they were once again called into action at the FISEC (Federation Internationale Sportive de l'Enseignement Catholique) Games – which unites the best performing athletes from catholic schools in the age-group between 14 and 17 – and yet again they responded by registering the best results so far in these games.
The pick of the bunch appears to be sprinter Jeandre Mallia who, along with Celine Pace, by local standards did reasonably well in the World Junior Championships held in Grosseto. Within a couple of years he should be challenging Darren Gilford, and that is saying something since Gilford is currently the leading local sprinter if not the best overall athlete.
During the year, Gilford set a new national record in the 60m dash and made it to the final of the Birmingham Indoor Games. A significant feat for an athlete who doesn’t have an indoor arena to train in: given that Maltese weather rarely gets to the point where athletes can’t train outside and thereby there is no incentive to build an indoor track.
Gilford was also the male representative of Maltese athletics at the Olympics and here he atoned for the previously mentioned disappointment with a good performance even if it wasn’t enough for him to go past his heat.
Not surprisingly, given these endeavours, Gilford was chosen as the Male Athlete of the Year by the MAAA, with Celine Pace getting the nod for the women’s award.
There were also some good results in long distance events with Charles Cilia doing well to finish seventeenth in his debut marathon in Rome, a result that was followed up by a 26th placing in the Amsterdam Marathon. Even more significant are the results by evergreen Carol Galea who, at 42, shows no signs of loosening her grasp on any event that exceeds 5000m.
From the administrative point of view, the most significant result was the successful staging of the European Winter Throwing Challenge. It was perhaps the biggest athletics event ever held in Malta and the end result was more than satisfying with a good number of top European athletes who specialise in the throwing disciplines coming to Malta to take part.
It also boosted the disciplines in Malta. Hungarian coach Gergely Kulcsar was brought over to oversee the development of the local athletes and Jean Paul Callus, the lone Maltese representative in these championships, became the first Maltese to throw the javelin more than 60 metres. By the end of the season, he had improved the national record by a massive eight metres.
The concluding words should be reserved for all those volunteers who keep Maltese athletics ticking be it in administrative, coaching or officiating roles. Like so many other athletics’ associations across the globe, it is these volunteers who are the real heroes and their dedication is such that any year should be considered as a successful one regardless of the results registered by the athletes.
Paul Grech for the IAAF