From today’s perspective, the Irish team which travelled to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow looks like one of our strongest ever. Four of that team ended their careers as world champions and Irish sporting legends – Barry McGuigan, Stephen Roche, John Treacy and Eamonn Coghlan.
Indeed, at those Games Ireland won its first Olympic medals in 16 years – but not by that quartet. Hugh Russell won bronze in the boxing ring, while the euphonious partnership of Wilkins and Wilkinson won silver in sailing.
McGuigan, who had won Commonwealth bantamweight gold in 1978, only got to the last 16 in the Olympic featherweight division, having injured his hand in the build-up to the Games. Roche finished 45th in the cycling road race, and in his autobiography ‘Born To Ride’ he writes that he wasn’t comfortable with the course’s tight corners. Both Roche and McGuigan would go on to have illustrious and successful careers during the 1980s.
Treacy was already in 1980 a double world champion, at cross-country. But his Olympic debut ended in calamity. Near the end of his 10,000 metres heat Treacy was in the last qualifying position for the final – but suffering from the effects of dehydration and heat he collapsed on the track, allowing defending champion Lasse Viren to jump over him and take his place. The 5,000 metres was Treacy’s chance to make amends, and he recovered admirably to make that final alongside Coghlan, Ireland’s greatest hope for a medal.
Fourth in the 1,500 metres in 1976 because of nerves and bad tactics, silver at the same distance in the 1978 European Championships, Coghlan had moved up to 5,000 metres for Moscow. With double defending champion Viren running only in the 10,000 metres, the favourite for the 5,000 metres was Ethiopia’s Miruts Yifter, who had just beaten Viren to take his title in the longer distance. ‘Yifter the Shifter’ had missed the Montreal Olympics due to the African boycott. In Munich four years earlier he had won bronze in the 10,000 metres but missed the start time for his 5,000 metres heat due to either misinformation or being locked in a toilet, depending on what story you want to believe.
On the question of his age, the Ethiopian was just as mysterious: “Men may steal my chickens; men may steal my sheep. But no man can steal my age.” In 1980 he was believed to be somewhere between 35 and 40 years old.
Yifter’s main weapon was a mindblowing kick from around 300 metres out. Could Coghlan, a world-renowned miler unproven at 5,000 metres, save enough energy over the longer race to live with Yifter’s decisive and inevitable attack?
Coghlan in peak form might have a chance. However, a few weeks before the Games he fell ill to a stomach complaint. This may have been exacerbated by overtraining – Coghlan was putting in over 100 miles a week and probably felt the pressure of having to make amends for his Montreal failure. Nonetheless he made it through his heat and semi to take his place in the final.
The final (with commentary here from David Coleman of the BBC) was slow and tactical. Yifter’s team-mate Mohamad Kedir increased the pace on a few occasions, perhaps to tire the sprint out of Coghlan, but the entire field was still together in the closing laps.
Coghlan was made to work hard in the second-last lap – coming to the bell he had to make two efforts to get in a good attacking position but was well-placed at the shoulder of leader Kedir going into the last lap. Around the second-last bend Coghlan stayed beside Kedir, with Yifter boxed in behind the two. Everything seemed to be playing into the Irishman’s hands.
Suddenly with 300 metres left two surprising things happened almost simultaneously.
First, Coghlan attacked – and almost immediately seemed to run out of steam. Once again he had made a bad tactical decision in an Olympic final.
Second, Kedir turned his head back, exchanged words with Yifter and then simply let Yifter pass through on the inside to make his trademark burst for the line. The Ethiopians had clearly been running to team orders, and Kedir had unexpectedly gifted Yifter a clear run to the gold. (Kedir’s reward was to trip up in the bunch, lose a shoe and eventually finish last.)
For Coghlan it was 1976 all over again. Just as Walker had blasted away down the back straight, so Yifter did too. Where the big Belgian Van Damme had powered past him with 200 metres to go in Montreal, the similarly-built Tanzanian Suleiman Nyambui did so here around the last bend.
Into the final straight Coghlan was grimacing and his head reeling. At best all he could do now was hang on for bronze.
But coming up behind a struggling Coghlan in the home straight was Kaarlo Maaninka of Finland, silver medallist behind Yifter in the 10,000 metres. Coghlan took the inside line but, looking despairingly over his right shoulder, he saw Maaninka finishing strongly outside to pass him with 50 metres left.
Unbelievably, Coghlan had finished fourth again, fallen from first to fourth in 300 metres again. One can only imagine how sickening it was for Irish fans to watch at the time.
To add insult to defeat, the following year Maaninka admitted to blood doping before the Moscow Olympics. While not illegal at the time, it was considered unethical and dangerous. So, a combination of illness, tactical misjudgement, Ethiopian teamwork and blood doping denied Ireland’s best athlete an Olympic medal again.
Treacy, meanwhile, ran a strong race to finish seventh. “It was a brilliant run”, he said in a public interview in 2004. In the next Olympics he did even better, winning silver in an epic marathon – his first run at the distance.
Coghlan never got another shot at that elusive Olympic prize. He missed the 1984 Games in Los Angeles due to injury. By 1988 he was 35 and past his peak but still qualified for Seoul – he made it through his heat but trailed in a distant last in his semi-final.
Still, from that awful low in Moscow Coghlan would eventually come back to claim one of the greatest victories in Irish sport. But that’s another story.
Here’s a short documentary about Coghlan’s Olympic near misses, seen through the prism of his unsuccessful 1988 comeback attempt: