Saturday 17 March 2018

Athletics - English leading way for golden generation

Growing maturity marks Donegal man as a future star, says Eamonn Sweeney

Mark English with his bronze medal after the men's 800m final event at the European Athletics Championships 2014
Mark English with his bronze medal after the men's 800m final event at the European Athletics Championships 2014

Eamonn Sweeney

THERE'S been a lot expected of Mark English. Ever since 2012, when he clocked the fastest time run over 800m by a European junior in several years and went on to finish fifth, first European, in a red-hot world junior final in which the top two would go on to finish second and third in the Olympics behind David Rudisha, the auguries seemed peculiarly propitious for the Letterkenny man. In an era when Irish athletics has produced an extraordinary array of talented young athletes - Ciara Mageean, Kate Veale, Thomas Barr, Paul Robinson, Sarah Lavin, Sean Tobin and Marcus Lawler among them - English managed to stand out.

And for good reason. Because on Friday in Zurich, English became the first member of this Golden Generation to make a breakthrough at senior level. The only surprising thing was he did it ahead of schedule, picking up a European Championships bronze in just his second season at senior level. As Sonia O'Sullivan noted, it's an achievement whose difficulty should not be under-rated. At the age of 21, English is just the ninth Irish athlete to win a medal in the 80-year history of the championships.

He won it in a tough race too. The 800m is not one of those races in the championships reduced to relative meaninglessness by African absence. Lining up against English in the final were Pierre-Ambroise Bosse of France, number two in the world this year, and Poland's Marcin Lewandowski, fourth in the last two World Championships. Neither made the podium. Gold medallist Adam Kszczot was pipped for first place at this year's world indoors by world outdoor champion Mohammed Aman of Ethiopia. There were some big hitters on that track in Zurich.

Then again Mark English has the talent to become a big hitter himself at not just European but world level over the next 10 years. Already this year, he had shown his ability to compete with the best, running Rudisha a close second in the New York Diamond League meeting. But perhaps the most exciting thing about English is the sense that he's not operating at full throttle yet. He doesn't even have a coach at the moment, having split with long-term trainer Teresa McDaid only two months ago, and is combining a top-flight athletics career with studies in medicine at UCD. It seems obvious that there's plenty more left in the tank.

This medal is hugely significant because, in the end, athletes are judged by performances in major championships. English spoke afterwards of wanting to prove he wasn't just a runner of fast times but an athlete who could negotiate the specialised demands of a championship. You suspect he may have wanted to prove it to himself above all. On a couple of occasions in the past, at underage level, he'd been caught out in qualifying and run out of a final place. And for a few horrible minutes on Wednesday night, it appeared he might miss out on Friday's final after he finished fourth in the first semi-final behind Bosse. Instead he came through as a fastest loser.

What was really impressive was how quickly English learned from the mistakes of his semi-final. On that occasion he followed the front-running Bosse all the way and faded in the home straight. In the final, Bosse hit the front from the gun again, but this time English let him go. Sixth at the bell, he timed things perfectly, surging late and looking certain of a silver before another Pole, Artur Kuciapski, overhauled him in the final few strides. It was a notably astute piece of running from an athlete still relatively inexperienced at this level.

That finishing surge bore witness to English's determination to improve his speed over 400m, which has seen him make a big improvement at the distance this year, clocking a 46.56 last month, which was just outside the qualifying standard. After parting company with McDaid, he spoke about wanting to work with a coach who shares his view on the importance of speed work for the 800m - a view which seemed justified as he kicked for home and powered past Bosse and Lewandowski. Most Irish 800m runners of old gave the impression of working towards the 1,500m, English seems like he's found the half-mile to be his perfect distance.

It's often suggested that a great tradition of middle-distance running in this country has recently been in decline. Yet some of the athletes most often mentioned in this connection - Marcus O'Sullivan, Ray Flynn, Frank O'Mara - never managed to medal at a European Championships. It is, as Sonia O'Sullivan said, a very difficult thing to do. Yet what those runners did do was reach major finals and provide the Irish sporting public with the heartening spectacle of green vests figuring in the glamour races of the championships. And that is why it's great to see Ciarán ó Lionáird and Paul Robinson on the starting line for today's 1,500m final after coming through two tough semi-finals.

ó Lionáird has previous, of course - his achievement in making the 2011 World Championships final is often under-estimated. But his subsequent loss of form in Olympic year and struggles in London, where he seemed about as unhappy as an athlete could be, make this a comeback to be savoured. However, it was Robinson who was the more impressive qualifier, producing a fine turn of speed to do Ilham Tanui Ozbilen of Turkey, a transplanted Kenyan and one of the competition favourites, out of the final qualifying place.

Aged just 23, Robinson also has a bright future ahead of him. The Kilcock man is, like English and ó Lionáird, a former world junior finalist and last year finished fourth in the European under 23 championships. If it may be too much to expect him to pick up a medal this afternoon, there should certainly be one in his future.

The big disappointment of the week was Thomas Barr's failure to qualify for the 400m hurdles final, specifically because the Waterford youngster finished so strongly in his semi-final that another five yards would probably have brought him through. Had things not briefly fallen asunder for him midway through the race, he could well have been a medal contender given that champion Karim Hussein of Switzerland was just .14 ahead of Barr in that fateful semi.

Not to worry. Barr is 21 and will come again. On the other hand, Rob Heffernan is probably in his twilight years as an athlete and didn't have a good day in the 50km walk. It may be that last year's world gold medal, for which he should have won the Sports Personality of the Year award if there was any justice, was the apotheosis of a great career.

Elsewhere, things were quite encouraging with most athletes doing slightly better than you'd expect instead of slightly worse, which had happened at recent major championships. Kelly Proper's progress to the semi-finals of the 200m, where she came within 0.2 of a second of making the final, was particularly noteworthy given that the Waterford woman has been a specialist long jumper for most of her career. Brian Gregan also gave a good account of himself in the semi-finals, with a season's best of 45.81 - a time which would have won him bronze had he run it in the weakened pre-Olympics championship of 2012. Such is the youth of the Irish team, it's easy to forget that Gregan is only 24 and still has time on his side. And if Sarah Lavin had a disastrous first major senior championships in the 100m hurdles, she can take comfort from the fact that so did Derval O'Rourke in her day.

But really it was all about English. Tomorrow belongs to him.

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