Coghlan’s silver lining in European ’78 thriller

At the bell, Coghlan (in green) leads but Ovett (in white) lurks outside…

Even with the personal hauls of Sonia O’Sullivan and Derval O’Rourke, Irish medals from the European Athletics Championships are rare, but the 1978 edition in Prague gave Ireland a dramatic silver in a thrilling race.

Inevitably there was also an Irish fourth place at those championships – a late charge in the 5,000 metres final not being enough to secure a medal for the young John Treacy. (Whatever happened to him?)

Fourth place also hung over Ireland’s star athlete of the time. Having blown the 1976 Olympic 1,500 metres final, Eamonn Coghlan had a lot to prove in the European final at the same distance two years later.

Favourite for the gold was Steve Ovett, who along with Sebastian Coe had just started to transform and dominate middle-distance running. Ovett also went into this race with a point to make. He and Coe had been surprisingly beaten in the 800 metres final by East Germany’s Olaf Beyer, who ran straight off the track without a lap of honour or even a wave to the crowd. Such odd behaviour fuelled suspicions that Beyer was himself fuelled, though he denied this when interviewed years later in Pat Butcher’s excellent book The Perfect Distance: Ovett and Coe. Beyer made the 1,500 metres final too, giving Ovett a chance at revenge.

The race was a thriller, with hard front running, tactical jostling, decisive bursts and a dramatic finish.

From the start Beyer charged off, but then the small, scruffy-looking Frenchman Gonzales took up the running and gained a five-metre lead after the first lap. Thomas Wessinghage of West Germany moved up to join him, bringing Ovett along to the front of the field. Coghlan, having spent the first lap at the back of the pack, moved up to cover Ovett.

As usual, David Coleman of the BBC provided an electrifying commentary (see video below) that captured what he described as the “fantastic atmosphere inside the stadium”. With a suitable sense of occasion for this major international final, after two laps he called the race positions by stating the countries of the runners: “France in front, West Germany second, Great Britain third, Ireland four, East Germany five…” He described with great relish the “bunching and banging” in the pack and the dynamic front running of Gonzales: “And still the little Frenchman driving on.”

Coming down the home straight for the second-last time, the field gathered in like a coiled spring. At the bell Coghlan squeezed past Gonzales on the inside while Ovett stayed wide and out of trouble. Coleman ratcheted up the tension, exclaiming that “they’re all in with a chance still, all twelve of them!” The excitement in his commentary is contagious.

With 300 metres to go the field burst open. Antti Loikkanen of Finland struck for home, and Ovett slipped in behind him into a prime attacking position. But down the back straight Coghlan was in trouble – he lost touch with the leaders and almost seemed to be going in reverse.

Ovett made his move with 200 metres to go, pulling away imperiously around the last bend and leaving the field strung out in his wake. His compatriot David Moorcroft passed Loikkanen too and moved into second place. With 50 metres still to go Ovett had the race won and gave his customary wave of triumph to the crowd. “And he’s already celebrating!” chuckled Coleman.

Meanwhile, Coghlan launched a desperate counter-attack to try and rescue something from the race. In sixth place at the top of the bend, he picked off Wessinghage and the other East German, Straub – but entering the home straight Moorcroft and Loikkanen were five metres ahead of him and looked to have done enough for the medals. Coghlan was back in the nightmare scenario of finishing fourth in a major final.

Yet somehow Coghlan hauled them in – first the Finn, who also gets passed by Wessinghage, and then Moorcroft. Crossing the line to claim silver, Coghlan flung his arms up as if he had won. After the frustration of Montreal and the prospect of a repeat of it ten seconds earlier, one can appreciate his relief at winning a major championship medal.

Ovett and Coghlan celebrate their medal wins.

(Ovett was heavily criticised in some quarters for his habit of a celebratory wave with fifty metres left in a race he was clearly winning. Five years later, Coghlan would start celebrating his greatest triumph with 150 metres to go – and while still in second place.)

So, Coghlan had found some redemption for his Olympic defeat and had proved himself to be as strong outdoors as on the American indoor circuit. His next challenge would be to try for that elusive Olympic medal in Moscow in 1980…

Here’s the exciting 1978 European 1,500 metres final, with Coleman’s equally-dramatic commentary:

YouTube credit: athlete5399

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