Wednesday 21 March 2018

Thomas Barr: The happiest Olympian who has ever had his heart broken

Thomas Barr of Ireland
Thomas Barr of Ireland
Thomas Barr acknowledges the crowd after finishing in fourth place with an Irish record of 47.97 in the men's 400m hurdles. Photo: Sportsfile
Thomas Barr of Ireland in action during the Men's 400m hurdles final where he finished in 4th place with a new Irish record of 47.97. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Hallelujah, nobody educated Thomas Barr on the curse of finishing fourth, the fate that deranges Olympic minds. Imagine. He comes to the mixed-zone, smiling. He sings like a skylark. If you didn't know he'd just missed a medal by some infinitesimal margin - a bluebottle's wingspan maybe - you could mistake him for someone who'd just come in for an unexpected inheritance.

"Aaah lads, aaah lads," he beams. Most of us, he's never seen before. We're not Track and Field journalists, you see. Mostly, we're just pallbearers despatched to gather up the pieces of broken Irish hearts.

But fourth hasn't defeated him. Fourth by .05 of a second and yet here he stands in front of us dispensing bonhomie.

"Aaah lads," he smiles again, the happiest Olympian who's ever had his heart broken.

This isn't how we remember Sean Drea or Eamonn Coghlan or Sonia those years they came up short of an Olympic podium. It's not the image we retain of Eoin Rheinisch in Beijing, finishing fourth behind a Frenchman competing for Togo who'd never even been to Africa.

Read More: Glory in near-miss as Barr 'puts name on map'

And it's sure not how we remember Annalise in Weymouth.

But it's just after midday in the Olympic Stadium then and Thomas Barr is like a fresh breeze gusting through a slightly fetid room.

Track and Field has a job selling its dramas to an open market and, even now, people can't help but summon murmurs. We've just seen the five fastest men over 400m hurdles this year, the fourth of whom, Barr, has registered a time that would have won him a medal in Athens, Beijing or London.

In five days, he's cut more than a second off his national record.

And that's beautiful. A white Irishman more than holding his own amidst all those bulging neck muscles of the sprint world. Finally free of injury, it's as if Thomas Barr has just taken lead weights out of his running shoes.

Trouble is, we're wondering about the man who's edged him out of bronze.

The giant stadium TV screen names this man as Yasmani Copello of Turkey, but he's really Yasmani Copello Escobar of Cuba. And at 29, he's now running faster than anyone ever thought he would at 25. For most of his career, he's run in a Cuban singlet and his best time in that colour was a 49.56 registered seven years ago.

But Copello changed allegiance to Turkey in 2014, a year his best mark was 50.62, and, well, something fundamental seems to have changed in his world.

Read More: Barr casts doubt on men who denied him

Prior to 2015, he had never run under 49 seconds. Yesterday, he got to the line in 47.92.

It seems wrong that this should be a line of questioning after the most electric run of Thomas Barr's life. But he's too pleasant a young man to see in it anything but the stark reality for athletics.

It's suggested to him that two of the runners in front of him represent countries (Kenya and Turkey) that aren't known for the most rigorous of drug testing.

"It's just a pity it's really come out in recent years that not every country is like Ireland when it comes to anti-doping," he said.

"And it is very disheartening because there's two Kenyans (it was actually one and an American) and a Turkish guy that beat me in the final and they're countries that have had a lot of controversy over them."

So let's play devil's advocate here. Let's just say we we're doing the maths on a Jamaican athlete who happened to have Barr's figures. Would we cultivate a different prejudice?

It's put to Barr that, if he'd medalled, he would have been questioned about breaking national records on the back of just 11 weeks' training and, to his credit, he doesn't take umbrage.

"That's just the way it is," he says. "I often doubt. I'll come back to a similar story when we were in Hong Kong last year for the World Championships and Brian Gregan was looking through people's progressions on the IAAF website

Read More: Thomas is the best, Barr none: fans left heartbroken but deeply proud

"It was like 100m, 12 seconds, 11, 10, nine over three years. And we were all 'Ah, there's definitely something going on there!'.

"Reading through it then, it was like 55, 50, 49 for hurdles . . . ah definitely something going on there'. And that was my own progression! Look I know I'm clean."

It is easy to believe him too because Barr sounds like a man freed from all manner of physical chains here.

Myriad injuries had him wondering if he'd even make it to Rio, one even forcing him to alter his running style. So how does it feel to be 0.05 seconds from a medal?

"When I saw the times coming up, I saw it was not even half a metre" he sighs, still smiling.

"But you know, 47, it's really put me on the map now. I was so, so close, just .05 of a second off the man over there, Copello."

Copello, meanwhile is just finishing up talking to some new Turkish friends.

As he walks past Barr, he places a consoling hand on the Irishman's back. It goes unheeded.

Thomas Barr is too deep in conversation.

Online Editors

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