Monday 16 September 2019

'I never look back with regret' - Eamonn Coghlan on his Olympic lows and the high of finally becoming a World Champion

From two fourth-placed finishes at the Olympics to world championship gold, Eamonn Coghlan hit the highest highs and endured the most frustrating lows. Now, however, he is taking everything in his stride

“I went by that Russian, I thought ‘thank God I got it’”, says Eamonn Coghlan after his famous fist-pumping gesture (inset) on his way to winning gold at the 1983 World Championships. Photo: INPHO
“I went by that Russian, I thought ‘thank God I got it’”, says Eamonn Coghlan after his famous fist-pumping gesture (inset) on his way to winning gold at the 1983 World Championships. Photo: INPHO

Cathal Dennehy

The reminders arrive daily. Well-meaning folk will drop them into conversation and whether he wants to or not, his mind will hurtle back four decades to the good and the bad - moments on a track that now seem to echo in eternity.

For anyone under 50, there's no way to appreciate Eamonn Coghlan's athletic brilliance without a few days of unpaid leave gazing at grainy footage on YouTube - a career which, by any objective measure, ranks up there with the greats of Irish sport.

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Just ask Conor McGregor, who declared a few years ago to be the first Irishman on the cover of Sports Illustrated, unaware Coghlan (three times) and Ronnie Delany (once) had been there, done that long before. And yet for some, Coghlan's career is defined as much by what it wasn't.

Fourth at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Fourth in Moscow in 1980.

'In 1979 Coghlan broke the indoor mile world record with 3:52.6, which he lowered to 3:50.6 in 1981 and 3:49.78 in 1983.' Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
'In 1979 Coghlan broke the indoor mile world record with 3:52.6, which he lowered to 3:50.6 in 1981 and 3:49.78 in 1983.' Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

But what of all that came after? The world title, world records. Plot the highs and you see they came after the two biggest blows of his career. Could it be that for all the regret of Montreal, the misery of Moscow, the hurt distilled into something potent that fuelled all future highs?

"Good question," he says. "That drove me on until I was 41. Finishing fourth in the Olympics is tough, finishing fourth twice is f***ing awful, according to (former US high jumper) Dwight Stones.

"I meet people and they ask how you did in the Olympics. If you say you won (a medal) they say 'wow' and that's the difference of going down as one of the all-time greats. That's what separates it, a couple of tenths of a second, not just for me but for f***ing anybody who finishes fourth.

"You know you're good enough to kick guys' asses and you just f*** up on the day in Montreal and you're sick in Moscow, but I never look back with regret - ever ever ever."

Doing so is pointless when the scarcity of Olympic opportunities means he's far from alone. In Montreal it was his fault: Coghlan chose to shave his legs - as many athletes do - the night before his 1500m final, but having not done so before it left him scratching all night and unable to sleep.

His plan in the final had been to wait until the final 150 metres then launch his strike, but a phone call that morning from old coach Jumbo Elliott warning him of his rivals' speed left him conflicted. In the final, as the field crawled through 400m in 62 seconds, he panicked and moved to the front, towing the field along with the insecurity of a man who didn't trust his kick.

By the time blows were traded on the final lap Coghlan had already punched himself out and he faded to fourth, just three tenths of a second off gold.

Four years later in Moscow his body failed him, Coghlan struggling with injury on the build-up then hit with a stomach issue and diarrhoea the day before the 5000m final.

He still led with 250 metres to run but again found three too good, denied a medal by by Finland's Kaarlo Maaninka, who later admitted to blood doping, a practice that was not banned until 1985.

In truth, it's what came to light since that has most challenged his love for the sport. "Every great performance is always going to be questioned whether it's athletics, cycling, boxing, you name it. You see what's come out of Russia, Germany, the systematic doping, the Chinese, Sonia (O'Sullivan) getting ripped off a few times - the way it's progressed to more scientific doping is really, really sad.

"You hear stories about guys carted off to hospital because they nearly had heart attacks (as a result of doping) and they're being still adored. It makes you kind of sick that there's a lot of that doping going on to this day and it is a bit of a turn-off."

He still had his day, of course. Lots of them. Many others didn't.

In 1979 Coghlan broke the indoor mile world record with 3:52.6, which he lowered to 3:50.6 in 1981 and 3:49.78 in 1983. That stood for 14 years until Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco - still widely praised as the best miler of all time - clocked 3:48.45.

Outdoors, Coghlan's crowning glory came in 1983 in Helsinki. His world 5000m title is a race he'll flash back to in the coming weeks as this year's World Championships get under way in Doha.

Coghlan admits he still imagines himself racing when he watches major championship finals. "Your running mind stays with you. But your physicality doesn't."

He's 66 now, but still keeps a close eye on the sport, following Mark English, Ciara Mageean and Thomas Barr wherever they're running. In recent years Coghlan coached his son John to a sub-four-minute mile and he's kept abreast of the gifted teenage generation coming through.

"Take Sarah Healy. Wow, what an engine that kid has - really, really fantastic. I'd wrap her in cotton wool and get her ready for when she's 23 and not worry about winning, losing and getting millions of miles in."

Coghlan himself struggled with the transition to senior level, returning from Villanova University after his first semester plagued by injury and not wishing to return (which he later did).

"Patience is a huge virtue you have to learn through difficult times. There's certainly a great crop and fair play to them, but I've also seen lots of juniors who won medals at Europeans who never did anything after.

"I think they get the message and understand how they've got to work, not just on the track but 24 hours a day: how they eat, study, sleep. I hope they come through."

For Coghlan, it took until the age of 30 to reach his peak, that day when he finally became a world champion.

"I really wanted to make up for missing out on the Olympic medals. My Dad had died, my coach had died, Jumbo Elliott had died, and their belief in me instilled to believe in myself even more that year."

Instead of running his usual 100 miles a week Coghlan ran a consistent 80 all through 1983. "I knew going into it I was ready."

He had doubts alright. Always did. The bigger the event the more they emerged. "But once you realise there's doubt, you silently reflect on the work you've done and remind yourself instead of getting the hell out of here, I'm going to fight this pain."

The night before he told his agent he'd make "one move and one move only" with 150 metres to run, but as he reached the final lap he had a 20-metre deficit to make up on Dmitriy Dmitriyev of the Soviet Union.

Coghlan coasted up to his shoulder on the final turn and began cheering as he drew alongside.

That celebration is another thing he's reminded of a lot, but given its apparent lack of humility, is it one he now regrets?

Short answer: hell no.

"I'm very happy I did that. When I went by that Russian (I thought), 'thank God I got it' because of the disappointments. I know why I gave that gesture and was it arrogance in everybody else's eyes? Perhaps, yes, but was it in mine? No, and I can live with that."

What he felt next was visceral. "Relief, absolute relief, and disbelief. It was a sense of freedom, of release that 'God, you are able to do it on the world stage.'"

In 1994 Coghlan hung up his spikes after becoming the first man over 40 to run a sub-four-minute mile, clocking 3:58.15 at Harvard University at the age of 41. Why did he go on that long? "Being pissed off at losing the Olympics, and it was the only way I knew how to make money," he says. "It was my living, I was a professional and I knew there was stuff on the line but beyond that, it was the fulfilment. I wanted to go out on my terms."

That he did. A career that soared so much higher than most could ever conceive.

Eamonn Coghlan was speaking as ambassador for the Griffith Avenue Mile, a new race that caters for runners of all abilities which will take place on September 22nd.

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