No medals for fourth

Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland (far left) misses out on a medal in the 1976 Olympic 1,500 metres final

When I was 8 or 9 years old I ran in a relay race for my athletics club in the sports day of a nearby town. I’m not sure what leg I ran – probably not the first or final leg, perhaps the second.

In any case, I remember running a steady race and not losing ground. However, we finished a distant fourth.

As we gathered after the race, one of our team told the rest of us that there was a medal for fourth place in a relay. (I think he said that his brother had told him this.) Unlikely as this seemed to us, we were young and gullible and optimistic.

So we headed over to the officials’ tent and asked for our prize. “Sorry lads,” one of the two officials told us as sympathetically as his bemusement would allow, “there are no medals for fourth.”

It must be a lot more crushing than that to finish fourth in an Olympic final, to be so agonisingly close to a reward for years of hard work and optimism. Anyone who saw the 5,000 metres final at the 1988 Olympics will remember the anguished reaction of Portuguese runner Domingos Castro as he was caught and passed on the line after trying to chase down tearaway leader John Ngugi of Kenya, his heroic effort all for nothing.

Ireland wins very few Olympic medals, and so our fourth places are even more painful. A young Sonia O’Sullivan was edged out of the medals in her first Olympic final, the 3,000 metres in 1992. Rower Sean Drea set a world record in his semi-final in 1976, an effort which probably ensured he would miss out on a medal in the final. Even worse was the fate of Eoin Rheinisch in the K1 slalom kayak event in 2008 – leading the final with only three competitors to go, all three came out faster than him and took the medal places.

But the Irish sportsperson most associated with this Olympic cruelty is Eamonn Coghlan, who finished fourth on two occasions.

Going into the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Coghlan was much fancied for a medal or even the win in the 1,500 metres. He shared a U.S. university and coach with the previous Irish winner of this event, Ronnie Delany twenty years earlier. Hot favourite Filbert Bayi of Tanzania was missing, because of the African nations’  boycott of the 1976 Games in protest at the New Zealand rugby team’s tour of apartheid-era South Africa that year. Ironically, this greatly helped the cause of New Zealand’s John Walker, who was now tipped as the likely winner.

As Coghlan tells it in his autobiography, his 1976 Olympic final experience was a classic example of a young athlete being overcome by the big occasion. Before the final, he sought tactical advice from his two coaches. His Dublin trainer Gerry Farnan assured him that he should run his usual race of staying back in the bunch until the last lap, while his college coach Jumbo Elliott felt that Coghlan needed to assert himself early in the race. Coghlan went with Elliott’s advice.

The night before the race, looking for any legal advantage, Coghlan shaved his legs, in the belief that he would gain the same aerodynamic effect that cyclists enjoy. Unfortunately, his legs itched so much afterwards that he had trouble sleeping the night before the biggest race of his life. (In any case, cyclists shave their legs primarily to avoid trapping dirt in any cuts and scrapes when they fall.)

The video of the 1976 Olympic 1,500 metres final is here and below, with commentary from the peerless David Coleman of the BBC. For the first lap, Coghlan bided his time in a slow race that seemed perfectly suited to his fast finish. But then at 500 metres he took up the lead; Coleman sounds genuinely surprised by this move.

At the bell Coghlan still led the race but Walker had moved up beside him, and 300 metres from home the New Zealander made his burst for gold. Coghlan went with him, but with 200 metres to go the Irishman started to pay for his earlier front-running.

First, Ivo Van Damme of Belgium powered past him into the silver medal position. Then on the home straight, having left a gap on the inside, Coghlan can only watch Paul-Heinz Wellmann of West Germany take advantage and slip past him too. Crossing the line, Coghlan slammed his fist in frustration – he had blown it.

The relative disappointment and pain of this fourth place finish would be put into their proper perspective by subsequent events. Van Damme was killed in a car crash later that year. Walker now suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a cruel fate for a top athlete.

As for Coghlan, he would have to pick himself up and focus on his next chance for Olympic glory, in 1980 in Moscow…

Here’s that 1976 Olympic 1,500 metres final – tough viewing for Irish sports fans:

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