Here we go again. One year out from the Tokyo Olympics, and for Thomas Barr this is when the clock truly starts ticking. It’s close enough to see but not to touch, a destination looming on the horizon, his every athletic act swayed by its magnetic pull.
Barr has never raced in Japan, never even set foot there, and he likely won’t until he sets off in July next year for the Irish holding camp in Fukuroi, about 150 miles west of Tokyo.
“It’s close enough to start getting excited,” he said at the launch of Indeed’s #TalentUnleashed campaign. “It’s nice to feel the Olympic buzz being generated again, but there is still a lot of work to be done between now and then.”
Barr will turn 28 on the day of the opening ceremony in Tokyo — he turns 27 today — and if there’s if there’s one wish he has it’s to produce the same heroics in 2020 that he did in 2016.
At the Rio Games Barr became the first Irishman for 84 years to reach an Olympic sprint final, finishing fourth in the 400m hurdles in 47.97 seconds. It was the best race of his career, but on occasion he still wonders what might have been.
He finished just 0.05 outside the medals and, with silver medallist Boniface Tumuti of Kenya barely seen since, the thought sometimes strikes Barr that he could have been robbed of a medal. Barr said:
He completely disappeared, but I wouldn’t dwell on it because there’s nothing I can do about it
Dozens of Kenyans have failed doping tests in the years since and the country was at risk of expulsion from major competitions if it didn’t get its anti-doping system in order — still very much a work in progress.
“It’s frustrating, especially considering Ireland has one of the best anti-doping programmes,” said Barr.
“There’s millions pumped in every year and I’m tested quite regularly — it’d be nice to know it’s done across the board. But if there is anyone on drugs, if I can go out there and beat them it’s more satisfying.”
For all the sport’s issues, it’s clear things are taking a turn for the better, with testing by the Athletics Integrity Unit getting more and more into hard-to-reach areas. The likely result should be that the next generation has a better chance at a level playing field.
Last weekend, Barr was following along as some of those future stars won medals for Ireland at the European U20 Championships and he was struck by the dissatisfaction shown by 5000m bronze medallist Darragh McElhinney and 1500 silver medallist Sarah Healy.
“I watched their interviews and they know there’s more there which is brilliant to see – that ambition and drive and tenacity to want to improve and be up there beating Europe’s best. But I’d love to say to them: Enjoy the medal, whatever colour it is, because they don’t come often. It’s hard if you know you had more in you, but medals are few and far between.” He should know. While Barr was the World University Games champion in 2015, his first major championship medal only arrived last year, at the age of 26, when he won European bronze in Berlin.
This year, his whole season is funnelled towards the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, which begin in late September. To date it’s been a slow-burner, his best time of 49.11 two seconds down on world champion Karsten Warholm, who ran a European record of 47.12 last weekend. But with two months until Doha, Barr believes he can close a lot of that gap. “It’s sick what times he’s running but if he can do it, as a European, I think maybe it’s achievable,” he said.
On Sunday evening Barr should coast to his ninth straight title at the Irish Championships in Santry, and he will then race at the European Team Championships in Norway followed by Diamond League races in Birmingham and Zurich ahead of the big 2019 target: The World Championships.
“If I can get myself into the final, I’d like to think I could challenge for medals. That’s what I like about the 400m hurdles: Everything is wide open.”