Irish blind athlete says exclusion from world team event 'discriminatory'

Sinead Kane began her feat of seven marathons in seven continents in the space of a week in Antarctica in January 2017
Sinead Kane (left) ran seven marathons in seven continents in the space of a week in 2017

A blind Irish athlete says she is being discriminated against because of her disability after being told she cannot fully represent the Ireland team at the World 24-Hour Championships in France later this month.

Corkwoman Sinead Kane has less than 5% vision but the 37-year-old has forged a career as one of her country's best ultra runners after only taking up the sport in 2012.

A qualified solicitor, Kane achieved the required standard for the championships which take place in Albi, near Toulouse, when she ran 204.5km in a 24-hour race in Crawley last April.

However the Youghal athlete competes with the aid of a guide and the sport's world governing body, the International Association of Ultra Runners (IAU) says this means she cannot count towards Ireland's team score at the championships which take place on 26-27 October.

The IAU event will operate under IAAF rules which state that results of competitors who need a guide runner cannot be part of team competitions.

After being informed of this by the IAU in July, Athletics Ireland took the decision not to select Ms Kane for the World Championships although the national governing body has since told the athlete that she would have been added to the four-strong female squad if the IAAF rule wasn't being enforced.

Sinead Kane only began running 2012
Sinead Kane achieved the World 24-Hour Championship standard in Crawley last April

'It has really upset me'

The IAU says Athletics Ireland was informed in July that it had the option of selecting Kane effectively as a "non-scoring" individual but as it stands, she is set to miss the championships.

"It has really upset me and makes me think what's the point in running anymore?" the Cork athlete told BBC Sport Northern Ireland.

"I've sacrificed the last three years of my life to try and get this standard."

Kane's feats on the world ultra running circuit over the last number of years include completing an astonishing seven marathons in seven continents in seven days in 2017.

That came less than two years after she ran her first 50km ultra marathon.

"I just seemed to have a talent for it and be naturally good at it," added the 37-year-old, who had no involvement in sport during her schooldays.

"It gave my confidence a boost because I was bullied as a child because of my disability."

Kane a sought-after motivational speaker

Kane's sporting achievements means she is a sought-after motivational speaker throughout Ireland and she is using that assertiveness to argue the case that she should be a full member of the Ireland team in Albi.

After being denied entry to an IAU race in Barcelona last December, Kane complained to the sport's governing body and was then told in February she has been chosen to serve on a new IAU Para Athletics Committee.

However, this committee has yet to meet and in any case, Kane insists her performances mean she should be eligible to race against the world's best ultra marathoners.

"I have achieved the international standard of a fully sighted runner so I am not running in a disability category because at no stage of any of this, has an asterisk being put beside my name to indicate any difference.

"When I achieved the standard last April in Crawley I was second female finisher."

Sonia O'Sullivan celebrates after winning 5,000m Olympic silver in Sydney 19 years ago
Irish running great Sonia O'Sullivan is among those backing Kane's case

Irish distance running great Sonia O'Sullivan has been among high-profile backers of her fellow Corkwoman in recent weeks while the IAU's former executive director, Irishman Richard Donovan is also strongly supporting Kane's case.

"I find it appalling a drug cheat could be welcomed into a world athletics championships after serving a ban for a couple of years, yet there's no place for a blind runner who fairly achieves a qualifying standard - simply because she requires a guide," said Donovan.

"We need to be clear that she achieved the exact same standard as sighted runners.

"I imagine it's the first time in the history of the sport that this has occurred, and therefore it's the first time the IAU is electing to apply a rule to exclude her."

IAU has previously waived IAAF rules

Former Irish Ultra Running boss Donovan, whose career has also seen him organise extreme marathon events throughout the world where disabled athletes including Kane have been among the competitors, also points out the IAU has previously been content to overlook IAAF rules.

"The IAU permits personal music devices in 24-hour World Championships races and yet these are not allowed in IAAF championships.

"It seems that an exception allowing music for 24 hours is more important to the IAU than allowing a blind person who qualifies to take part."

Donovan also dismisses suggestions that a guide confers any advantage on Kane during a 24-hour race.

"A visual guide for a blind person is merely a verbal version of the white line on a track. The guide is not a 'pacer'.

Richard Donovan organises extreme marathon events where disabled competitors are among the entries
Former IAU executive director Richard Donovan says the world governing body's stance "betrays the principles of the sport'

"I would defy the IAU or IAAF to name one sighted athlete who would prefer to run blindfolded for 24 hours with a guide.

"I can't even imagine how additionally draining it must be on a visually impaired athlete to have to also concentrate on verbal instructions for 24 HOURS in addition to the running itself.

"Ultra-running supports fairness and inclusiveness and celebrates those who triumph over adversity.

"The actions of the IAU to invoke a rule to exclude a blind athlete betray the principles of the sport."

IAU holding firm over Kane ruling

On Tuesday, IAU general secretary Hilary Walker, the world top female ultra runner for much of the 1980s and 1990s, reiterated that the international governing body would be unable to allow Kane to represent her country in the team competition because of IAAF rules.

"We have been in touch with both Athletics Ireland and the IAAF on this particular query," the IAU general secretary told BBC Sport Northern Ireland.

"As per the IAAF's regulations we have advised Athletics Ireland that Sinead can compete on Athletics Ireland's team but would be unable to score for the team. Athletics Ireland have not submitted Sinead as a member of the team on their entry forms.

"We understand and totally sympathise with Sinead's situation but we also want to ensure that there is fair and transparent competition for all in our IAU championships. This is the aspiration behind the IAAF regulations which we adhere to."

The IAU general secretary added that the ultra running governing body plans to "continue discussions with IAAF to find a solution for future championships for instances that do arise for our para-athletes" but this seems set to come too late for the Irishwoman's hopes of competing in France.

"We have had several championships recently where some of our par-athletes, who can and have competed independently without assistance, have even finished on the podium," added the IAU official.

Sinead Kane in action with then guide John O'Regan in the Dublin Women's Mini Marathon in 2016
Richard Donovan says the IAAF is prepared to welcome drugs cheats back into athletics but discriminates against blind athletes

'Still time for IAU to do the right thing'

However, Donovan, elected to serve as the IAU's executive director between 2012 and 2013, remains unimpressed by the international governing body's stance.

"It's discrimination and it's being defended and supported by the IAU."

Donovan adds that there is still time for IAU to "do the right thing" and accept Kane's full entry.

"The idea that there are entry deadlines in place is nonsense. I've seen athletes changed or added up to the day before a Championships."

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