The only athlete in the world today who’s a household name is Usain Bolt. In Ireland in the mid-1980s, when I was a kid, the role of proverbial runner was filled by Eamonn Coghlan.
Anyone running in the streets would be sure to get a shout of: “Go on, Eamonn Coghlan!” And if you were having races in the back garden or outside on the road, your mother would call you in for your dinner with: “Come in now, Eamonn Coghlan!”
If you knew nothing about running or the sport of athletics, you still knew who Eamonn Coghlan was. The Saturday afternoon sports show on Irish TV, Sports Stadium, would regularly feature Coghlan thundering around the multicoloured boards of Madison Square Garden for his latest victory on the U.S. indoor circuit. And our 3rd class English schoolbook included the indelible image of Coghlan, tanned and confident in the green vest of Ireland, at the shoulder of a weedy-looking guy in a red singlet, about to blast off for the greatest moment of his running career.
Today, unless you’re an ’80s kid, Coghlan doesn’t have the same high profile. His two Olympic final appearances ended in the agonizing failure and disappointment of twice finishing in fourth place, which means he has been overshadowed by the subsequent achievements of John Treacy and Sonia O’Sullivan. Dominating the American indoor athletics scene, which Coghlan did from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, doesn’t have the same cachet as international outdoor track success. And becoming a politician was, by the nature of politics, always going to earn him new critics.
But Rob Heffernan’s World Championship gold in the 50km walk in 2013 brought the spotlight back to Coghlan’s 5,000 metre world title, 30 years earlier to the day. As the Worlds have risen in prestige, so Coghlan’s victory seems more impressive, especially as today Ireland would do well just having an athlete in a final.
Also as impressive is the context of Coghlan’s 1983 win. At the start of that year, things were looking fairly bleak for him. His father and both of his boyhood coaches had died in a short space of time. His Olympic near-misses in 1976 and 1980 made him look like that most unforgivable of sporting figures – a serial choker. Despite his high profile and indoor success, his only major outdoor medal was as a distant second to Steve Ovett in the 1978 European 1,500 metres, and he missed the 1982 Europeans because of injury. Now turned 30, Coghlan’s career looked like fizzling out in frustration and underachievement.
Fortunately for him, 1983 brought the first World Athletics Championships, to be held in Helsinki.
After another successful indoor season, including a world indoor mile record that would stand unbroken for 14 years, Coghlan was in peak form heading to the championships. He qualified with ease for the 5,000 metre final; would he blow it again or would he finally win a major title?
Coghlan’s Olympic nemeses weren’t in the field. John Walker was running in the 1,500 metres, though he would move up to 5,000 metres for the following year’s Olympics in Los Angeles. Miruts Yifter had retired and was now definitely in his forties, if he hadn’t already been in 1980. But Coghlan still had to face strong opposition from the reigning 5,000 metre champions of Europe (Thomas Wessinghage of West Germany), Africa (Wodajo Bulti of Ethiopia) and the United States (Doug Padilla).
The final was slow and cautious. From the gun three Russians, Krokmalyuk, Abramov and the euphoniously-named Dmitriy Dmitriyev, went right to the front to control the race. And then for the next eight laps nothing much happened. All the while Coghlan stayed near the back of the field.
As Coghlan tells it in his autobiography, Chairman of the Boards, Master of the Mile, his plan was to bide his time, keep an eye on Wessinghage and conserve his energy until there were only four laps to go, at which point he would turn the final into a mile race. No one in that field could live with him over a mile, he figured.
Sure enough, with four laps left the field were still bunched after a slow first two miles. During the next lap Coghlan moved up stealthily towards the head of the pack. A kilometre out, Dmitriyev made a long strike for home, bringing Wessinghage, Bulti and Coghlan along in his wake. With two laps to go Coghlan was in the dreaded fourth place.
Coming down the home straight for the second-last time, Wessinghage and Bulti seemed unable to respond to close the ten-metre gap that Dmitriyev had opened, and so at the bell Coghlan set off after him.
Here Irish TV athletics commentator Tony O’Donoghue rose to the occasion. An athletics statistician who usually played second fiddle to more established sports commentators, O’Donoghue’s strength was in his track and field knowledge rather than his broadcasting style.
But as Coghlan’s race teetered between long-awaited success and another agonizing defeat, O’Donoghue captured in one carefully-weighted line the painful memories and growing excitement of Irish athletics fans:
“There is one lap to go and it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain cool and objective about the outcome of this race.”
Coghlan caught up to Dmitriyev with 300 metres to go – the same point at which his 1976 and 1980 Olympic finals fell apart for him. But this time Coghlan looked stronger and more confident; he wouldn’t be overtaken this time, nor would he throw everything into a hasty attack.
Before the race he had decided on the point where he would make his final sprint – coming off the last bend. Reaching the top of that bend and feeling on top of the world, Coghlan clenched his fists in celebration – with 150 metres still to run and while still in second place.
Then came one of the most famous images in Irish sport. As he drew level with the Russian, Coghlan looked into his face and smiled. For Coghlan, the World title was now a formality. At last he was going to win a major title. After one more half-celebration down the home straight, Coghlan claimed his gold, while poor Dmitriyev got no reward for his efforts and was beaten on the line into fourth.
Olympic success eluded Coghlan and there’ll always be people (usually on barstools) who hold that against him. But Coghlan’s World Championship gold was an impressive and much-deserved triumph.
You can listen to Tony O’Donoghue’s cracking commentary on the last lap of that 1983 World 5,000 metres final, and watch the BBC coverage of the race and medal ceremony below: