It's 41 years ago this week since Eamonn Coghlan and a slipstream of the world's best middle-distance runners ran the 'Magnificent Mile' at Philadelphia's Franklin Field. The Irishman was the leader of the pack, primed to break the outdoor world record.
Coghlan had set a record for the world indoor mile mark just four months earlier in San Diego and the high-class field this time included the Kiwi and current outdoor holder John Walker, Rod Dixon, and Steve Scott. Two pacemakers had been included to drive the engine but Sydney Maree had to make do with a seat in the stand.
Maree was a black South African teammate of Coghlan's at Villanova and, while he was cleared to run in the American collegiate's NCAA circuit, he was barred from competing in an IAAF race because of the boycott of South Africa as a result of the country's ghastly apartheid regime. Gaining US citizenship would eventually solve that problem.
Coghlan and the other runners had been threatened with a lifetime ban if they raced with him this day. Maree ultimately withdrew and, while Coghlan would have to do with a season's best outdoor time of 3:52.9, he still made the cover of Sports Illustrated and the centrefold to boot.
It was the inside spread that Coghlan reproduced on Twitter last month when tweeting his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In it, he is reaching up to his sidelined teammate in the stands, their arms clasped and all smiles. 'Hands Across the Chasm' was the headline.
41 years ago I was threatened with a life ban if I race against Sydney Maree. Greeted him after the race and covered by @SInow. Not much difference today. #blacklifematters pic.twitter.com/6CBqBvIwGw— Eamonn Coghlan (@EamonnCoghlan1) June 6, 2020
“It said it all,” said Coghlan. “There was no division between black and white when it came to athletics.”
Politics and sport mixed far too often on the world stage during Coghlan's career.
Twenty-nine African nations sat out the 1976 Montreal Games when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) failed to ban New Zealand in the wake of the All Blacks tour to South Africa. The 1980 and '84 Games were both weakened by boycotts split down Cold War lines.
Coghlan's biggest concern through all this was whether the Games would go ahead. He wouldn't have been alone in that. Athletes by their nature are selfish creatures. They have to be. “That's the way we dealt with it in our own little cocooned way back then,” he reasoned.
The world is different now and athletes are changing with it.
When Coghlan gave an interview back in his day it might appear in the Philadelphia Enquirer or the New York Post. Now a sportsperson makes a statement and it can ripple around the world within minutes. Technology has changed the medium by amplifying the voice and one verbal slip can go global within minutes thanks to social media.
All in all then, Coghlan is clearly wary about sportspeople speaking out. "I just think there's another element out there in the United States of America that's driving this and forcing athletes into giving an opinion, and in turn creating a media hype around the world.”
What that element is he didn't say but there is clear evidence of athletes finding their voice beyond their sport in recent times, both here in Ireland and all around the world, and especially so since the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement that flourished in its wake in the US and in other countries around the world.
The IOC made clear last month that protests such as taking a knee remain in violation of Rule 50 in the Olympic Charter. The backlash to that ill-timed and hard-nosed stance forced a more conciliatory take soon after but Coghlan remains wary of any talk that athletes might resolve to come together in some form of coordinated protest at such a major event.
“You can verbally support the Black Lives Matter if you want but if you take a uniform stance and try to get all the other athletes into it it just takes away from what you are actually trying to achieve,” he suggested. “It takes away from your mental energy, from your physical energy.
“It takes away from your focus on your sport if you start to get caught up in the movement. And I really think that the athletes who are on the line for making it into a final are going to be focusing more on the sport than thinking about using their position to support some kind of cause.”
It was actions rather than words that he adopted to show his support and kinship during his own career. Not just that day in Philadelphia but every time black and white athletes shared a cab or a flight or a track and it's that brand of shared solidarity to which he leans now.
I suppose the stance I took back 41 years ago was to be able to go and hug and shake hands with Sydney Maree and tell him, 'Hey Sydney, I love ya, you're one of us guys, we support you all the way through this'.
"And the same would go to this very same day. If I found some of my colleagues in athletics, black athletes, in particular, were being given a hard time because of their colour, I would have no problem being out there supporting them and protesting on their behalf.”
- Eamonn Coghlan was speaking at the launch of the Irish Life Health Mile Challenge. The week-long challenge to find out the fittest and most active club and county starts on August 17th and finishes on August 23rd when Ireland’s top athletes compete at the Irish Life Health Track and Field Championships.