Wednesday 22 November 2017

‘I wasn’t afraid I would die; I knew I was dying’ – Flynn

Flynn competed at two Olympics, bowing out in the 1500m heats in 1980 and finishing 11th in the 5000m final in 1984.
Flynn competed at two Olympics, bowing out in the 1500m heats in 1980 and finishing 11th in the 5000m final in 1984.

Cathal Dennehy

For those who suffer through the sadistic challenge of a sub-four-minute mile, there is a sound that offers hope, which arrives as both a sweet reprieve and a call to arms in their time of despair. It's the sound of the bell signalling one more lap to run and Ray Flynn will never forget hearing it in Oslo's Bislett Stadium in July 1982.

"We went through [1200m] in 2:51 and it energised me," remembers Flynn (right), who turned 60 earlier this year. "I thought: 'wow, this is great, now it's time to just do it.'"

The mile, of all events, is perhaps the most thorough examination of an athlete. To master it requires a sprinter's acceleration, a distance runner's endurance, a chess player's strategic nous and an extraordinary tolerance to suffer and tolerate pain.

Next Friday marks 35 years since that Oslo evening when Flynn joined the event's super-elite, the Longford native overruling the scream of fatigue with 300 metres remaining in the Dream Mile and accelerating past Olympic champion John Walker, aware that sometimes you have to bet big to win big.

"I didn't know what was going to happen when I made that move," he says. "I wasn't afraid I would die; I knew I was dying. I just kept thinking: 'get there, get there, go as hard as you can. Don't let up.'"

Distressed

He didn't, though that night he was up against a freight train in Steve Scott, the American who clocked 3:47.69 to take victory. Walker forged his way past Flynn to take second in 3:49.08, with Flynn crossing the line third, his time of 3:49.77 making him the first Irishman to break 3:50.

The moments after were lost in the fog of exhaustion. "I was pretty distressed," says Flynn. "I remember throwing up on the side of the track."

A fortnight ago, those memories came flooding back when he returned to Oslo for the Diamond League. Beset by jetlag the morning before the event, he awoke at 6am, laced up his shoes and ran a mile in the deserted Bislett Stadium.

"I imagined each lap as I ran," he says. "I got the feel of it again."

It's a game he's never left. After retiring from athletics, he set up Flynn Sports Management, which he runs from his home in Tennessee, and among the 60 world-class athletes on his books are Ireland's Ciara Mageean and Fionnuala McCormack.

Despite not getting home as often as he'd like, Flynn maintains a strong interest in Irish athletics, and he's watched as some of our finest middle distance runners have tried and failed to beat his mile or 1500m record - which stands at 3:33.5 and was run in the same race - in the years since.

Both times are likely to stand for years, maybe even decades to come, so what, I ask Flynn, has happened to Irish distance running?

"They stopped coming to America," he says. "That's it, 100 per cent."

Flynn was a scholarship student at East Tennessee State in the 70s, and though he agrees there are more home-based options these days, he's adamant the American path remains the best choice.

"It's no reflection on coaching in Ireland today, but it's a missed opportunity not to be here," he says. "It's the story of life: you get better when you're around better people. Athletics is no different. When you're around levels higher than you dreamed of, it helps you dream at that level and to eventually get there."

Flynn has hosted several Irish athletes in recent years at the Millrose Games, the famed indoor meeting in New York which he has been the director of for the past six years. It's no surprise, then, that he has strong opinions on the direction of the sport - on several levels.

One of his best athletes is Ajee' Wilson, an American who is the third fastest 800m runner in the world this year.

However, it's an open secret that her event has become monopolised by intersex athletes born with hyperandrogenism, a condition which causes them to produce an excess of testosterone and can occur when someone is born with both male and female sex organs.

"It's a difficult situation," admits Flynn. "The intersex athletes, ironically, discriminate against women themselves. It's not an even playing field."

The IAAF had initially reacted to their presence by imposing an upper limit on testosterone levels for female athletes, requiring those above it to take hormones, but this practice was suspended by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2015.

Flynn, however, sees it as the only way to level the playing field and protect women's sport.

"It's a simple solution to monitor testosterone levels," he says. "You're not judging anyone. It's not anybody's fault, but there's a difference between men and women and the most obvious one is testosterone.

Mirror

"There needs to be a fair playing field for all because in boxing a heavyweight doesn't fight against a lightweight. I think the sport has to look in the mirror and organise itself properly. There's a fair way to do it."

And then there are the doping scandals, which may well be responsible for the declining attendances at several prominent meetings this year.

"One thing it shows is we do test and we do catch people," says Flynn. "We've become cynical by seeing it, but athletics is at the cutting edge and has a system in place with real bans, whereas in team sports they're hidden away and covered up in a far greater number."

Flynn concluded his career before the arrival of EPO, which warped the landscape of middle distance running in the 90s, but how does he reflect on the prevalence of doping in his era?

"There was great naivety," he says. "I never thought anybody could be cheating, but I'm sure some people were. For them, the memories will fade and nobody else will remember, but if they did it the wrong way they have to live with that themselves."

Flynn competed at two Olympics, bowing out in the 1500m heats in 1980 and finishing 11th in the 5000m final in 1984. He also won a European indoor silver medal in 1980, but when I ask his career highlight, his mind can't help but flick back to that magical night in Oslo when everything clicked.

"It's the race I'm most proud of," he says. "I didn't win any Olympic medals, but I think I got as much out of myself as I could. To run under 3:50 in the mile is to be part of a really special club."

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