The spikes are retired, but Ray Flynn is still running and racing

You’re the director of one of the world’s best athletics meetings. It’s Saturday night in New York City, prime time, and you’re live to the nation on NBC.

Ray Flynn pictured with the 2019 NYRR Millrose Games Wanamaker Mile winner Yomif Kejelcha of Ethiopia and eight-time Wanamaker Mile champion Bernard Lagat. Photo by Ross Dettman
Ray Flynn pictured with the 2019 NYRR Millrose Games Wanamaker Mile winner Yomif Kejelcha of Ethiopia and eight-time Wanamaker Mile champion Bernard Lagat. Photo by Ross Dettman

The stands are packed, young and old crammed into every space in The Armory, an indoor arena on the upper west side of Manhattan.

Your job is stressful, what with all its moving parts, and it’s about to become terrifying.

Midway through the men’s 3,000m, Kemoy Campbell, a Jamaican athlete you manage, collapses.

He does not move. The 28-year-old is out cold, and no-one knows why.

The first responders rush to him and though the race is still on, no-one cares about the result.

For a number of minutes, there is no movement from Campbell, until a defibrillator shocks him back to life.

He is rushed in an ambulance to a nearby hospital and somehow, someway, you know the show must go on.

“It was fear, really, just fear,” says Ray Flynn, who was in his eighth year as director of the Millrose Games, when the incident occurred, last February.

“We were just afraid and fearful that, God forbid, he died. We were saying our prayers that this young guy lives.”

Campbell did survive, and though the heart attack signalled the end of his competitive running career, it was a minor miracle he lived. Doctors later told him that just two percent of patients who had what he had survive with normal brain function.

For Flynn — a Longford native who first made his name as an athlete, then later as an agent — that night brought a harrowing flashback to 2007 and the US Olympic marathon trials in Central Park.

It was there that Ryan Shay, one of the leading contenders, suffered a fatal heart attack just five miles into the race.

The race carried on, and as the elated top-three finishers made their way to the press conference, unaware of what happened, Flynn had the unenviable task of telling them.

“I’ve been around the sport a long time and you’re not expecting anybody to die,” he says. “You might expect somebody to trip and have a concussion, but people rarely die.”

Such incidents speak to the unpredictable chaos that comes with the life of an athletics manager, which Flynn has been for the past three decades.

His competitive career ended in 1989 and he ranks with the greats of Irish middle-distance running. No Irishman has ever gone quicker than his 3:33.5 for 1,500m — which he ran en route to a 3:49 mile — while Flynn also has a European indoor 1,500m medal, an Olympic 5,000m final, and a whopping 89 sub-four-minute miles to his name.

From his home in Tennessee, he oversees Flynn Sports Management, a company with five staff and which has 60 of the world’s best athletes on its books, Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack and Mark English among them.

Having been there and done that in the golden era of indoor athletics, few know better than Flynn what makes a good track meeting. In his nine years in charge of Millrose, Flynn has brought the event bounding back to life.

He first got the call to become its meeting director ahead of the 2012 edition, when the event faced an uncertain future. Since 1914, it had been staged at Madison Square Garden, but with attendances dwindling and costs rising, that venue no longer made sense.

“I think it had lost a million dollars the year before and it just had run its course there,” says Flynn, who oversaw its rebirth in a downsized setting, at The Armory.

“The jury was out for a lot of people, but there was an energy here and people bought into it. They came on board and said, ‘This is the home, this is the place’,” Flynn says.

The 113th edition will be staged tonight, and Flynn has assembled fields of astonishing quality, with reigning world champions, Donavan Brazier, Nia Ali, Grant Holloway, and Joe Kovacs joining heavyweights of the sport like Allyson Felix, Fillip Ingebrigtsen, and Nick Willis.

The latter duo will be joined in the Wanamaker Mile, the meeting’s climax, by Ireland’s Andrew Coscoran, who has made rapid strides of late, by running a 3:56 mile and 3:37 1,500m. There’ll be other Irish interest, too, with Mark English in the men’s 800m and rising star Cian McPhillips — a Longford native, like Flynn — in the high-school mile.

“I think he’s going to be a great, great runner for the future,” says Flynn.

The meeting will also see two children from Sligo, Glen Carty and Ciara Schmidtmeier, compete in the ‘Fastest Kid in the World’ 55m race, the culmination of a talent-spotting programme run by coach Dermot McDermott.

“I love Dermot’s energy and I love what he’s done back there,” says Flynn. “He hasn’t got enough credit, because he’s built an energy and awareness with Athletics Ireland that you need to really engage with children in the schools.”

From children to teenagers to professionals, Millrose gathers them all as one and, having lived the sport for the past half-century, Flynn knows that’s critical to engage the next generation.

“I don’t think we should revolutionise the sport,” he says.

There’s nothing like top athletes jumping and throwing and running, as we see in championships. When you look at the art form, it’s a beautiful sport, so we just needed to keep the energy high.

That’s his philosophy with Millrose, where events hit you one after another like a succession of fireworks, your breath barely drawn before the next one is building to a crescendo.

“World Athletics are trying to come up with new ideas (street running and meets like that) which is cool, but, to me, there’s nothing like the excitement of a meet like Millrose, when you can’t walk in the place, it’s that packed. People are cheering and screaming and the music’s deafening and records are broken: that’s what the sport is all about,” Flynn says.

In Flynn’s profession, the race is never truly over. Once tonight is in the books, he’ll look ahead to this month’s US Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta, where another hot topic will be debated.

Nike announced on Wednesday that its ground-breaking Alphafly Next% shoe will be available to wear at the race, and it’s understood to be substantially more efficient than anything on the market. Many have called for it to be banned, though it escaped that fate last week, when World Athletics announced its new rules, mandating that shoes can’t have a mid-sole height above 40mm or contain multiple plates (the Alphafly’s sole is 39.5mm and contains one carbon fibre plate).

Fionnuala McCormack spoke out strongly against World Athletics, this week, for what she called “weak” regulations, but Flynn has some sympathy for the sport’s governing body. “I do think they made an objective decision and what they did was correct in establishing boundaries, but I know it is an uneven field out there and there certainly is an advantage from the shoes,” Flynn says.

His biggest sympathy lies with athletes like McCormack, who must choose between loyalty to their sponsor and the potential performance gain of the Nike shoes. “I have three of the best athletes at the US Olympic (marathon) trials and none of them are Nike — Molly Huddle, for Saucony, Emily Sisson, for New Balance, Emma Bates, for Asics — and I put my money on them to beat the others. There is every chance that the athletes from other companies could be at the top.”

Flynn believes other companies will eventually catch up to Nike and while it’s now the hot topic in athletics, he knows there’s always another storm brewing. “World Athletics is having to deal with a lot of issues: transgender, hyper-androgenism, the shoes — it’s a different era,” he says nostalgically. “When we were kids, nobody talked about any of this stuff, but now it is a new frontier.”

He was happy to have his career when he did, not that he’s drifted out of the sport’s clutches. If anything, he’s only become more entrenched. The work is both exhausting and exhilarating, with enough air miles to make Greta Thunberg wince.

In May, Flynn will fly out to Japan for a pre-Olympic event and, in July, he plans to get back to Ireland. After that, it’ll be back to Tokyo for the big dance. He’d love to spend more time in Tennessee, with his wife and children, but the merry-go-round of the athletics circuit tends to force his hand: Deals to be done, races to be organised, athletes and coaches, and other meet directors, to be kept happy.

A life of stress, but also supreme satisfaction. “It’s wonderful to have a job that you love, when you get up in the morning,” he says. “I love having the opportunity to work in this sport.”

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