Saturday 16 December 2017

'I'm probably up against dopers, but I just have to do my own thing'

Mark English slams Russia decision as he guns for place in 800m final after injury woes

Ireland's Mark English Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Mark English Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Cathal Dennehy

The Olympics, much like the tooth fairy, seems very different through the eyes of a seven-year-old.

Mark English thinks back to Sydney 2000, that September morning when Sonia O'Sullivan won silver and the Games first held him captive in their aura.

"There was something magical about it," he says. "There was a fire born, and since then there was always a part of me that wanted to be on that stage."

In less than a fortnight, he'll get that chance when he takes to the track for the first round of the men's 800m. At 23, English is still young for an elite athlete. Young, but no longer innocent. He knows the truth behind the tooth fairy.

"I'm probably out there competing against dopers, but there's nothing I can do to change that," he says. "I have to focus on myself and just do my own thing."

The countdown to his first Olympics is not what he imagined, that's for sure.

Not only has English faced a race against time to recover his fitness after a three-month injury nightmare, but the orchestrators of this magical circus have ensured the athletes themselves are the last thing anyone is talking about.

Truth is, the IAAF's decision to ban Russia will have little impact on the men's 800m in Rio - the fastest Russian in 2016 has run 1:46.61, almost two seconds down on English's best - but that's not to say the Donegal man doesn't care about the sleight of hand being pulled in the boardrooms.

In fact last weekend's decision by the IOC not to issue a blanket ban on Russia, despite evidence of a state-sponsored doping programme, left him wondering whose side they were on.

"It sends the wrong message," says English. "It's sad. It's a damaging decision for the Olympic movement as a whole."

The IOC also blocked Russian whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova from competing due to a previous doping infraction, a move which left English baffled, given that the rule applies only to Russians.

"Not allowing them to compete sends the message that we don't want whistleblowers," he says. "These people are heroes. If it weren't for them and journalists, would the Russian team even be banned in athletics?"

His inference is clear, and if his defence of whistleblowers sounds particularly ardent, it's because the topic strikes close to home: English is coached by one.

Steve Magness (31) is head coach at the University of Houston in Texas. He was the chief whistleblower behind the scandal which engulfed Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project last year.


Magness, a former assistant to Salazar, said he had evidence to suggest Galen Rupp, the 2012 Olympic 10,000m silver medallist, had used testosterone as a 16-year-old, and he also claimed Salazar tested a banned testosterone gel on his son to see how much would trigger a positive test.

No official ruling has yet been made on the case by the US Anti-Doping Agency.

So one year on, how does English's coach feel about sending an athlete into the cauldron of Olympic competition?

"I think clean athletes have a chance," says Magness. "There are some phenomenal clean athletes who can medal and perhaps even win, but I think the deck is still stacked against them. It helps with Russia being out, but that doesn't cure the problem."

It was October last year when English first approached Magness to take over his coaching duties, an offer the American was delighted to accept.

"When you have a talent like Mark, your goal isn't to squeeze every last bit out of him," he says. "Your goal is to always put him in a place where he can express that talent."

Almost 5,000 miles separate them, but somehow it works. They talk on the phone almost daily and English often brings a camera to the track, recording his sessions on a tripod and emailing them to Magness.

"Mark is a really intelligent guy," says Magness. "It helps having someone who is very keen and very aware so he can convey what he is feeling."

Ever since his junior days, when he was heralded as the most talented Irish athlete since Sonia, English has held rigid beliefs about what works best for him, sometimes ignoring the advice of coaches if it contravened his own training principles.

Magness, however, sees that self-belief as a positive.

"Mark's mentality is perfect," he says. "You have a guy who, on the inside, is a very, very confident and tough runner, but on the outside he's humble enough to realise he can't just solely rely on his talent."

English's favoured approach has always been quality over quantity.

"I don't do a huge amount of mileage, he says. "My body just breaks down and I get flat if I do too much."

The focus of his training has instead been on developing speed and power, two areas where English has an almost unfair allocation of gifts. In UCD they still talk about the time he tried the vertical leap test in the gym and jumped higher than any sportsperson who had ever passed through the college.

However, the most splendid vase is often the most fragile.

In March this year, English looked on course to win a medal at the World Indoor Championships in Portland, at least until he stepped in a pothole a week before on a training run.

A stress reaction in his metatarsal was the dreaded diagnosis that cast his Olympic participation into doubt. English had to wear an immobilising protective boot for six weeks. It meant he didn't run again for almost three months.

In the meantime, he hit the pool and stationary bike, blasting his way through sessions so his legs would never forget what the screaming fatigue felt like. As he says, though, "nothing compares to actually running".

English knew he would be healthy in time for Rio, but this was the Olympics, the pinnacle; he only wanted to go if he could perform to the best of his ability.

"You feel that wave of expectation this year because a lot of people tune into athletics once every four years," he says.

"I wasn't panicking that I wouldn't make it but I was panicking that I wouldn't be able to produce a 1:45 and be competitive. That's what drives me."

His first race was at the Irish championships in late June, where he dispatched the field with ease to win in 1:51.48. Three weeks later he ran 1:47.23 in Belgium, then last weekend clocked 1:45.36 in London.

He's back, not quite to his best, but not far off.

Magness believes English will be in 1:44 shape when he takes to the track on August 12, and while that's unlikely to give reigning champion David Rudisha any sleepless nights, it would put English in the mix to challenge for a place in the final.

"Since I came back off the injury everything's been as good as I could have hoped for," says English. "I'd like to be able to get into the semi-finals, run my own race and give it a good lash."

Amid all the distractions, all the disruptions, he goes there with a fighting chance. In the end, that's all he's asking for.

Irish Independent

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