Sinead Kissane: Thomas Barr provides antidote to apathy surrounding Rio Olympic circus
Published 30/07/2016 | 02:30
When Thomas Barr felt a pain in his groin as he ran the bend on the track at the University of Limerick last Monday week, the fear that his Olympic Games could be over flashed through him.
It was four days before he was meant to run his final race before Rio at the Morton Games but he had to pull out of the Santry meet. Injury has been tracking his movements all season and there was no let-up the closer the Olympics was approaching.
After speaking with his coach Haley Harrison and physio Emma Gallivan, Barr talked it over with someone a lot of us would turn to when you need some comfort and reassurance.
He spoke to his mum. Turned out she was right, the injury wasn't as serious as he thought. It was a groin strain not bad enough to rule him out of the Olympics yet bad enough for him to miss three days of training which equated to 10 per cent of the remainder of his training before his heat of the 400m Hurdles in Rio.
"I was extremely frustrated," Barr says. "I had gone from bad to worse to good again and then straight back down. All I kept saying was that somebody is testing me this year".
2015 gave more than a wink that this season could be Barr's year until injury intervened. Last year he really made his international breakthrough with gold in the 400m hurdles at the World University Games, he ran the qualifying standard for Rio and he just missed out on a place in the final at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing.
But second-season syndrome came in the form of a recurrence of a labrum tear in his hip which sidelined him for 11 weeks before he returned to competition at the National Championships in June. He's had to alter his running mechanics which basically means changing the way he runs because of this on-going hip problem.
Sometimes athletes like to sell themselves big if they know they don't have the form to back it up but that ain't Barr's way. He doesn't dress up the fact that he's not the athlete he was last season.
"This year I didn't actually run the Olympic standard because of injury. Last year I could knock out a 48/49-second run no problem (his PB is 48.65). This year I'm struggling to break 50 (seconds)," Barr concedes.
"This is the first year that I've been really set back by injury. We're two-and-a-half weeks out from my actual competition and I'm not fully fit, I'm not fully ready. I'm not going out there and giving a true reflection of what I'm capable of which is a little annoying especially when there's so many critics. At the same time, I'm usually quite good at blocking out negative energy and just going out and running".
If only going out and running was that easy but it's never the full story. "I'm trying to please a lot of people," Barr admits. "There's a lot of pressure on me to keep getting better and to be injury-free and be able to compete with sponsors and the media and the public. A lot of that would put pressure on you. I wouldn't say that I don't enjoy it but that side of things has become a lot more stressful in the last year or so, especially in the lead-up to Rio. At this stage, I'm just happy to be injury-free and going to the Games."
Barr says he's going to give it everything but he goes to the 'greatest show on earth' not quite sure what kind of performance he can deliver. And athletics now also expects you to put on a show in terms of showing some "personality".
At the World Championships last summer, organisers wanted athletes competing in the relays to strike a pose when they were introduced onto the track. When the American women's 4x100m relay ran out they posed like characters out of 'Charlie's Angels'.
Barr and his 4x400m team-mates didn't get involved in any posturing and just ran onto the track with their hands up. "We were all caught off-guard on that one," Barr laughs. "But that's what gets the followership at the end of the day, that bit of personality or that bit of pizzazz."
While Barr has been extra-careful to listen to his body for any niggles or aches as they hit the home straight to Rio, how does he square all the prep he does with not knowing what or who he faces in the Olympics?
When he looked at who he was lining up against in the semi-final of the World Championships last year he thought there was no way some of his competitors were doing it legitimately.
"I had my suspicions about a few of them there. Some of them hadn't run anything near what they had run in the championships. They hadn't been seen on the circuit beforehand but they come out and with a personal best of 50 or 49 seconds or whatever.
"Maybe they are clean, maybe they are freaks of nature. Or maybe they're just like me sometimes that they can come out of the rough and run well. But it is very difficult."
Despite his injury stresses, Barr wants to soak up the Olympic experience and wants to make a semi-final. "If you had asked me a year ago I would have said a final, go one better than the World Championships last year. But this year I am aiming and happy to make it to a semi-final."
So that's just a taste of Barr's story ahead of these Olympics. The question for you, the reader, is where this narrative fits for you and your interest levels against the backdrop of all the controversies around Rio.
After listening to Barr, that line from the movie 'Notting Hill' was on loop in my head. "Don't forget," Julia Roberts tells that guy who can't quite believe his luck, "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her."
In the rush of disgust and outrage with the IOC and Russia, the Olympics has rightfully been lashed. And because we're continually being duped, it feels like an interest in other athletes' stories and struggles has been dulled and even disregarded.
I found Barr's excitement with the Olympics jarring with my own feelings as we countdown to a show where some athletes like to portray themselves as Charlie's Angels and fool us all. But we also need clean athletes who remain stuck to the ideal that competing at the Olympics is a dream and refuse to get dragged into the wavelength of apathy.
Which was why listening to Barr this week and his fight to live his dream was the antidote to everything wrong about the Olympics.
Don't forget. He's just a guy, standing before us, asking us to understand his story.