Thursday 19 April 2018

Athletics: Gillick's moment passes in bitter disappointment

But star still should have raced in the 4x400m relay, says John O'Brien

DAVID Gillick didn't need anybody to spell it out for him on Friday night in Barcelona, a track that had been good to him in the past. The Olympic Stadium offered no sense of refuge and Gillick didn't seek a hiding place. On the biggest stage of the year, the biggest stage of his life maybe, he had come up short and he didn't need telling. It was written in his sad eyes and in the frustration etched all over his face.

The men's 400m had been a muddling race, almost defying rational analysis. A baffling tactical affair in which the main contenders seemed to be busy watching each other while the unheralded athletes slipped through for the medals. Gillick had been handed the relatively plum draw of lane four with his main rival, Jonathan Borlee, on his inside. Tell Gillick that he would finish two places ahead of the Belgian and not win a medal and he would have suspected you of dabbling with mind-altering substances.

Beating Borlee while his twin brother, Kevin, streaked away with the gold medal was no consolation, however. For Gillick, there was nothing to salve the pain. That his friend and training partner Martyn Rooney claimed bronze would be an ultimate source of cheer, but not now. Not when he had spilled his guts out on the track and still it hadn't been enough. And he knew he was better than he'd performed. That was the hardest cut of all.

Snatches from his post-race interview told the grim story. "Didn't run my sweetest race . . . never really got into a rhythm . . . wasn't as controlled as I'm capable of . . . didn't let it flow . . . just wasn't meant to be my day." And then Gillick made what seemed to be a strange admission. "I thought this was my time to get on the podium," he said. "Maybe I was thinking too far ahead."

This was precisely the mistake that he seemed certain not to make. Focus on the process, the old mantra goes, not the result. Gillick had repeated it to himself over and over before these championships began. In the past, he'd become too worked up on the day of major finals and expended too much energy before the starter's gun had sounded. Not this time, though. His preparations had gone smoothly. He felt chilled out and relaxed. Ready, as he said himself, to let it flow.

And it was disappointing he didn't make it count. Gillick knows that himself. This was his time. Before the race, the Borlee camp had spoken about running 44.6, just to be sure of beating the Irish runner. Gillick was the mark. And maybe that burden of expectation was ultimately too heavy a load to bear. Gillick would have put enough pressure on himself without feeling the weight of a nation's hopes on his shoulders as well.

But that is the nature of athletics at the highest level and Gillick is bright enough to know that too. He signed up to the life as a kid growing up in the leafy Dublin suburb of Dundrum and he knew it would never be easy. When he won a sensational gold medal at the 2005 European Indoor championships it changed his life in ways he could never have imagined. He was a star in the public eye then and the adjustment was difficult and forced him to grow up.

Outside of major championships, his strength and resilience have never been in question. This is the athlete, remember, who overcame a heartbreaking 2006 season, which embraced disaster at that year's European Championships, to reclaim his indoor title in Birmingham the following year. The same athlete who took the tough decision to relocate to Loughborough, in search of the best environment to push his career forward.

The worry now, though, is that Gillick is approaching the autumn of his career at a time when the men's 400m is particularly flush with talent. Discard the drug cheat LaShawn Merritt and Gillick, at his best, wouldn't have been far off the cream at the 2008 Olympics. Leslie Djhone, a place behind him on Friday, was fifth in the final in Beijing. But now Gillick has the emerging Borlees among others to contend with. The Florida-based twins have been coached by their father, Jacques, from a young age and, frighteningly, are still just 22-years-old.

In short, they have been coached to be winners. It is no discredit to Gillick's earliest coaches to suggest he never had that start. The system here precluded it. When he lined up for Friday's final, Gillick was surrounded by athletes who were better funded and had superior support structures behind them. That doesn't explain fully why, after looking supremely comfortable all week, he suddenly tensed up in the final. But by today's standards he was a late-comer to elite running. He still looks raw when it comes to the biggest races.

We can talk glibly about a nation's hopes and expectations when what really matters is his expectations and his disappointments and, crucially, how he copes with them. And that is why it was so disappointing to see the 4x400m relay team take to the track yesterday morning with no Gillick in the line-up. The perfect opportunity to run Friday's pain out of his legs, but Gillick didn't want to know. It was too soon to face his demons. He opted out.

You hope that somewhere down the line Gillick will review his performance at these championships and regret, among other things, that he didn't race yesterday morning. Even if distressed after Friday's failure, he still had a duty to his team-mates from which he discharged himself too softly. Gillick was the sole reason the relay team was there in the first place. Without his speed they were doomed to be also-rans.

Ultimately, his no-show yesterday was more revealing than anything he had said in the mixed zone the previous evening. It told us that Friday's race had cut him to the bone, that it had indeed been his time and that the failure would likely scar him for a long time to come.

Sunday Independent

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