By Will Downing, Berlin
Another glorious night in Irish sport as Thomas Barr blitzed to bronze at the European Athletics Championships in Berlin, a dramatic 400 metres hurdles seeing epic duels for all the medals.
The Waterford athlete and former World University Games champion held off a stern challenge from France’s Ludvy Vaillant on his inside lane to secure his first ever major Championship medal.
Barr found being drawn on the outside in lane eight would not be a major problem, as he became the first ever Irish male sprint medallist at a European Outdoors.
And after all, Kori Carter had won women’s 400m hurdles gold at last year’s World Championships in London from lane nine.
The Ferrybank AC man held his own for the first 300 metres, until Norway’s youthful world champion Karsten Warholm edged up alongside him heading into the final bend.
As Warholm opened up the big battle for gold against defending European champion Yasmani Copello of Turkey, Barr then found himself in a huge fight to get onto the podium, as his neighbour in lane seven, Vaillant, came up alongside heading into the final two hurdles, briefly moving ahead into third.
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) August 9, 2018
It was stride for stride for the final two hurdles, until Barr put the foot down to take it over the final few metres.
Barr’s time of 48.31 seconds was the second-fastest of his career, just 0.34 off his Irish record set in finishing fourth at the Rio Olympics.
Gallant Vaillant in fourth here still ran a lifetime best of 48.42, to be denied by 0.11.
It’s Irelands 15th all-time medal at the European athletics Championships, with recent bronzes for Mark English on 2014 and Ciara Mageean two years ago, plus Derval O’Rourke’s back-to-back silvers at Gothenburg in 2006 and Barcelona in 2010.
But what a contest for gold.
For the first time, two athletes would dip under 48 seconds at a Europeans, Warholm continuing his wonderful recent dominance to add the continental title to his global one from London last year.
Warholm surged to a new Norwegian record of 47.64 seconds – also a European Under-23 record – with Copello in second clocking a new Turkish record of 47.81.
As a result, Warholm and Copello are now fourth and fifth on the all-time European list. Barr remains tenth.
Ironically Barr was the only man of the top four not to record a lifetime best on the night – but he’ll happily take the bronze, at long last.
“My warmest congratulations to Thomas Barr on winning bronze in the 400m hurdles at the European Athletics Championships today; a historic first for an Irish athlete and inspiration for so many people in Ireland.”— President of Ireland (@PresidentIRL) August 9, 2018
Barr enthused: “It’s unbelievable! This year, everyone has been talking about medals. ‘Barr is in for a good shout of a medal’ and I’ve been like: ‘Yeah yeah yeah….’
“Just as other years, I have been at Europeans and I haven’t delivered. But this year I felt I was in good shape, possibly the best shape I have ever been in. Probably even better than Rio, considering how much training I missed before Rio.
“For it to come out on the day that it mattered is so special. I cannot believe it.
“It will take a while to sink in, but also for a while I knew I had it coming.
“I was really relaxed all day, that there was a medal there for me. I just had to go and get it.”
Referring to the direct head-to-head against Vaillant, Barr said: “As races go, obviously I’m going to say it was a great race because I got a medal – but it was!
“I knew around hurdle seven or eight, I could see Karsten and Copello coming up on the inside.
“I was prepared for that, I didn’t panic.
“I kept my stride pattern, I kept my cool, and I said: ‘Right. Start kicking now’ at hurdle eight.
“I start putting the boot down, giving it a go.
“I could feel the French guy coming up on my shoulder at hurdle eight. I knew he didn’t have enough ground on me to actually push past me – well actually he did, but I was able to keep with him and push past him then.
“Coming down the home straight, once I got through those final two hurdles I knew he was mine.
“All the way down I was holding my breath for that whole last 40 metres, and then just the sense of relief and joy coming across the line was just unbelievable.”
While all that was going on, Leon Reid was on the warm-up track waiting for his final, watching in a tent alongside members of the Irish coaching and back-up teams.
The new arrival in Irish international athletics would come seventh in the men’s 200m final, but still put a time beaten only by Paul Hession’s Irish record over the half-lap distance.
Reid was outflanked by world champion Ramil Guliyev of Turkey, who won in a Championship record 19.76 seconds - the man in the Irish vest in contention heading into the closing straight but was outsprinted over the final sixty metres.
His time of 20.37 seconds, equal to yesterday’s mark in the heats, was the joint second-best performance ever by an Irish athlete, and matches Reid’s third best-ever 200m clocking.
A reminder that he ran 20.27 before his transfer from British Athletics was approved by the IAAF.
Guliyev’s 19.76 was only 0.04 outside Pietro Mennea’s famous European record from 1979, which stood as the world record for almost a decade.
Nethaneel Richardson-Blake of Britain won silver in 20.04, given second by 0.006 over Alex Wilson, whose 20.04 was a new Swiss national record.
20.13 for Eseosa Desalu of Italy was only good enough for sixth – faster than every European winning time apart from 1990 and 2002, and better than every silver-medal winning time ever.
Despite two solid performances that were only 0.07 seconds outside Hession’s 11-year-old Irish record, Reid was still disappointed with his placing.
No-one could say he didn’t give his all – he threw up during post-race interviews.
Reid said: “It just wasn’t good enough. I was trying to hit the bend, and they must have just piggy-backed off me and thought ‘Let’s go’.
“I just couldn’t give anything back on the straight.
“Guliyev? I didn’t really see him. When they come, they just go.
“You don’t really get a chance to admire. When he was gone, he was gone, and I thought ‘OK, this is my bit now’.
Referring to the recent run of successes for Irish athletics at youth and junior level, plus headline-grabbing performances from himself, Barr, Lawler and Healy, the Menapians athlete feels things are on the way up.
“All this attention is good for our sport and good for our country, so if we can keep going like this, maybe me and Marcus in the final in Worlds next year maybe,” he said.
“And Tom’s got a medal now so he’s going to step up again next year, and we’re going to continue to grow as a team, and just get better every year.”
Hosts Germany grabbed gold and silver in a thrilling men’s javelin final as the third-ranked German this year, Thomas Röhler, threw out a massive 89.47m throw to win ahead of compatriot Andreas Hoffman.
After a summer of breaking the Estonian record, Magnus Kirt won bronze.
World-leader Andreas Vetter could only finish fifth.
Elvira Herman of Belarus denied something similar from happening in the women’s 100m hurdles decider – a 12.67 winning time thwarting German pair Pamela Dutkiewicz and defending champion Cindy Roleder, second and third respectively.
Ekaterini Stefani set a new Championship record of 4.85 metres to win the women’s pole vault for Greece, the reigning world and Olympic champion successfully defending the title she first won two years ago in Amsterdam.
And the ebullient and never-boring Frenchman Mahedine Mekhissi-Benabbad was crowned European 3000m steeplechase champion for the fourth time in emphatic fashion.
It would of course have been five but he was infamously stripped of gold when removing his vest and waving it in the air on the final straight in Zurich four years ago, earning disqualification.
At least this time, he gave mascot Berlino a hug past the final line. Wise man. He’d never mess with a bear.