'Each day will be like a final'
Barr and English preparing for difficult early tests in Beijing
Published 22/08/2015 | 02:30
After a summer of scandal which has left a cloud of suspicion as thick as the Beijing smog loitering in the air, the IAAF World Championships get under way in the Chinese capital today, with the cavernous Bird's Nest Stadium playing host to almost 2,000 athletes over the next nine days.
Mark English will be the first of the 16-strong Irish team to take to the track in the 800m heats today, and for the 22-year-old from Donegal, the idea that he's always competing on a level playing field is no longer viable after recent reports suggested as many as one in three medals won over the last decade in endurance events were won through doping.
"You don't want to believe it's as rampant as it is," says English, "but it is a reminder that when you go out to these meets, not everybody is doing it the honest way."
English - who has been tested 10 times already this year - hopes he can still make an impact at the event, and to reach tomorrow's semi-final, the UCD student will have to among the top three in this morning's heat or be one of six fastest losers overall.
Thomas Barr, who is Ireland's other major hope of making a final on the track, gets his 400m hurdles campaign under way at 11.59am. The Ferrybank athlete is drawn against world leader Bershawn Jackson, but as joint-second fastest in the race this season, he should have few problems finishing in the top four and advancing to tomorrow's semi-final.
For Barr, who crashed out in the semi-final at the European Championships in Zurich last year when touted as a medal contender, there will be nothing taken for granted when the gun fires later this morning. "I'm going to be going hell for leather in each race," he says. "Each day is going to be like a final."
After their individual campaigns, English and Barr will team up with Brian Gregan and either Richard Morrissey or Brian Murphy for the men's 4x400m relay next weekend, though it will come as a major surprise if the Irish team manages to reach the final.
Once again, Irish medal hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of Rob Heffernan, who has endured a disappointing couple of years since winning gold at the World Championships in Moscow in 2013. Heffernan dropped out of the European Championships last summer - later finding out he had a double hernia, which has since been operated on - and was disqualified in the 10,000m race walk at the National Championships in Santry last month.
However, the 37-year-old feels he's ready to put up a stout defence of his title when he takes to the streets for the 50km race walk next Saturday, joined by team-mates Alex Wright and Brendan Boyce, both of whom he coaches.
"I feel good," says Heffernan. "My training has gone well, I'm in a good place mentally and physically, so I'll hopefully have a good result. Conditions are going to be very tough, but they never bother me."
Internationally, the race which stands head and shoulders above the rest - much like its 6ft-5-inch star attraction - is tomorrow's men's 100m final, which will play out to a sea of furrowed brows as twice-banned drugs cheat Justin Gatlin seeks to topple Jamaica's Usain Bolt.
Gatlin, 33, has crushed the best sprinters in the world this summer and has not been beaten since 2013, but he has yet to come up against Bolt. The 33-year-old American is coached by Dennis Mitchell - who himself has served a two-year doping ban - and tops the world rankings via his 9.74-second run in Doha.
Bolt, meanwhile, has a best of just 9.87 this season and though the Jamaican looked his usually mellow self in Beijing on Thursday, there was enough in his words to suggest the 29-year-old feels the burden he now carries - the weight of expectation of an entire sport wanting, needing, him to beat Gatlin.
"People are saying I need to win for the sport, but I can't do it all by myself," he said. "It's a responsibility of all the athletes to take it upon themselves to save the sport and go forward without drug cheats."
Irish in action
Today: Mark English, men's 800m heats, 5.06am; Thomas Barr, men's 400m hurdles heats, 11.59am
Tomorrow: Alex Wright, men's 20km race walk, 1.30am; Barr, semi-final*, 11.40am; English, semi-final* 1.15pm
Live, BBC Two, 12.05am, 11.05am; BBC One, 12.10pm; Eurosport, 12.30am, 11.15am Highlights, BBC Two, 5pm