Irish hopefuls ready for race of their lives
Mark English and Thomas Barr both navigated their way through their qualifying heats on the first day of the IAAF World Championships in Beijing yesterday.
Barr and English will now line up in the semi-finals of their respective events - 400m hurdles and 800m - today, and when they enter the cauldron that is the Bird's Nest Stadium, each will face the most daunting challenge of their career.
English finished fifth in his 800m heat yesterday in 1:46.69, which was enough to qualify the 22-year-old as one of the six fastest losers. "I was very nervous," he said of his 20-minute wait trackside watching the remaining heats before he was confirmed as one of the qualifiers. "It's nerve-wracking; it's your whole year on the line in those few moments, but I'm delighted to have made it through."
English positioned himself in third throughout the opening lap as Colombia's Rafith Rodriguez took the field through the bell in a steady 52.52 seconds. "My plan was to sit in second or third and be involved with 300m to go," he said. "If you sit any further back it's so hard to make a move, so I said I'll let them come at me."
The Donegal man stayed on the inside until he entered the home straight, but he soon found himself running out of gas on the frantic dash to the line. However, he squeezed through, and he will take his place in the third of three semi-finals at 1.31pm Irish time today.
"I wasn't friends with anybody in that call-up room," he said. "I was mentally focused on that race, ready for it, so I'm just moving on now. It's my first semi-final at a world championships so I'm going to go out and enjoy it. I'm racing guys I'm used to racing and I've beaten them before, so I'll be pretty confident.
"I'll have to run close to a PB. They're all going to be fast, and that's the sort of race that'll suit me."
Barr secured a more straightforward passage, finishing third in his heat in 49.20 seconds. Running relatively blind on the outside lane, Barr was overtaken by Turkey's Yasmani Copello after a conservative first 150 metres. "I was running my own race out there, so it was tough to gauge," said Barr. "Hopefully it might be an inside lane (in the semis."
The Ferrybank athlete turned into the home straight in fifth position but produced a typically powerful finishing burst to move up over the final 50 metres to qualify automatically in third. "I had to do so much work down the home straight but I'm glad I had that kick," said Barr.
"I felt good. This is my first World Championships and I've made it to the semi-final, but there were parts of that race I wasn't happy about and I know my coach will have noticed too. I'm glad I have something to work on. I'm going to have to run the race of my life. If it all comes together, I could be in the final."
On the international front, meanwhile, all eyes will be trained on the men's 100m final today, with Usain Bolt hoping to fend off the challenge of Justin Gatlin and defend his world title at 2:.15pm Irish time.
Gatlin breezed through his qualifying heat yesterday in 9.83 seconds, while Bolt was equally relaxed - if not quite as swift - when winning comfortably in 9.97. With Gatlin unbeaten for almost two years and having been imperious this season, the task facing Bolt in deposing him is daunting.
In Gatlin, who is running faster than ever at the age of 33 having served two doping bans, Bolt now has a serious rival; he will need to be at his best, or at least very close to it, to defeat the American. But he has shown few signs of his best.
With Gatlin despised by many in athletics, and Bolt viewed as the apparent saviour of the sport, the clash will be lent the inevitable narrative of a clichéd movie script.
For those wishing for a Bolt victory, though - and for those hoping for a bright new dawn to help forget sprinting's dark past - there is unlikely to be a Hollywood ending.
Irish in action
Alex Wright (men's 20km race walk, 1:30am)
Thomas Barr (men's 400m hurdles semi-final, 11:40am)
Mark English (men's 800m semi-final,1:15pm)
Tori Pena (women's pole vault qualification, 2:30am)
Kerry O'Flaherty, Sara Treacy, Michelle Finn (women's steeplechase heats, 2:45am)
Today: Live, BBC Two, 1:30am, 11am; British Eurosport: 12:00am, 11:15am; Highlights, BBC Two, 7pm
Tomorrow: Live, BBC Two, 2:30am, 11am; British Eurosport, 2:30am, 11:30am; Highlights, BBC Two, 7pm
Sunday Indo Sport