Saturday 26 May 2018

A 'little slip-up' sees hopes dashed in blink of an eye

Thomas Barr is pipped on the line for bronze by Turkey's Yasmani Copello in the 400m hurdles final in Rio yesterday
Thomas Barr is pipped on the line for bronze by Turkey's Yasmani Copello in the 400m hurdles final in Rio yesterday

Cathal Dennehy

It seemed wrong to look back and find a flaw, but Thomas Barr couldn't help it.

Fourth place always curses its recipient with self-reflection, and despite the immense and thoroughly justified pride the 24-year-old felt after draining every ounce from his limbs, the question remained: could he have won a medal?

The place to start was not at the beginning, but on the final bend, where Barr switched from his usual 13 strides between hurdles to 14, a standard approach for athletes at that point of the race, when strides become shorter as fatigue takes a vice-like hold.

It's a difficult skill to master, being able to consciously shorten your stride to the desired length in a flicker. Barr changed to a right-leg lead at the seventh barrier, but had to stutter slightly approaching it, costing him precious microseconds.

"I was wondering if anyone would notice that, but yeah, I definitely wasn't as confident over those hurdles," said Barr, who dropped to 15 strides between the last two barriers. "At nine and 10 I stuttered a little bit, but what is the perfect race when I came home with a 47-second run?"

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It doesn't exist, of course, not that Barr's coaches, Hayley and Drew Harrison, will ever stop searching for it.

They watched at Barr's training base at the University of Limerick yesterday, Hayley fighting back the rising anxiety as the race approached, hoping her protégé had listened to her advice.

"I just reminded him of his stride pattern and to stay calm, stay in contention and to concentrate," she said. "To get over each of the hurdles and run off them."

With Barr missing out on a medal by a blink of an eye, did she see any fault that could have been avoided to land him on the podium?

"Every coach can nit-pick but there's no point," she said. "I couldn't be critical at all. That national record is stunning, a phenomenal run."

Harrison altered Barr's stride pattern this summer in the wake of a long-term injury, aware that he did not have the same level of conditioning as last year. So if this was Barr not at his peak, what does she think is possible next year?

"You'd hope he can go faster and win a medal but because of that hip condition (Barr missed three months this year with a hip labral tear), thinking too far ahead isn't wise. We've just got to relish this year and what he's achieved."

Barr himself admitted that the top bend may have cost him bronze, but at a time where he surpassed even his most starry-eyed expectations, it seemed wrong to dwell on it.

"I had a little slip-up on hurdles six and seven, which might have cost me a little bit of time but, Jesus, a fourth-place finish from seven or eight weeks training."

He didn't get bronze, not yet anyway, but if there's one thing we know about athletics, it's that fourth place is not always permanent.

Or, as one British journalist put it on the press tribune yesterday, "fourth is the new bronze".

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Current rules state that drug tests can be stored and retested for up to 10 years, and given Barr finished behind athletes from Turkey and Kenya - two countries with highly questionable anti-doping systems - it may come as no surprise if he eventually gets upgraded.


Given Turkey's place in the pantheon of doping, there was inevitable suspicion surrounding bronze medallist Yasmani Copello, the former Cuban who had a personal best of 49.56 before switching his nationality in 2014.

Since then, the 29-year-old has taken lumps off his PB, running 48.42 to win the European Championships last month and 47.92 yesterday.

Afterwards, I asked him to explain what was behind the jump in performance, which occurred at an age where most sprinters are stagnating.

"I don't know," said Copello, who divides his training between Italy, Turkey and Spain. "I was running fast before, but 47.92 is crazy. I was working and am very happy."

Though all medallists are part of the IAAF testing pool, they were only tested between one and three times through that in all of 2015, not a problem if each has a rigorous national anti-doping authority - as the gold medallist from the USA does - but not something that could be said for the silver medallist from Kenya's Boniface Tumuti, who declined to answer a question on the subject yesterday.

Irish Independent

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