Whisper it gently, for fear of jinxing it, but this could be happening: An Irish sprinter on an Olympic podium.
Thomas Barr enters this afternoon’s 400m hurdles final, held at 4pm Irish time, with the third fastest time of the eight finallists this year.
The last man to do it was Bob Tisdall at the Los Angeles Games in 1932, and after Barr’s heat on Monday we told him just how long a streak of history he had defied. “That’s crazy,” he said. “I have to follow in his footsteps now.”
A reproduction of Tuesday’s run should be enough to put him on the podium. If he can find an extra few tenths of a second, an athletics stadium could even hear Amhrán na bhFiann ring out for the first time at an Olympics since 1956. Stranger things have happened. “I did say it joking,” he said, “but anything is possible.” When Barr settles into his blocks, to his left will be Javier Culson of Puerto Rico, a bronze medallist at the last Olympics. To his right, Kerron Clement of the USA, a former world champion.
“Everything is a bonus from here,” he said. “I don’t mean to be cocky, but I know myself I have a strong finish. If I’m within touching distance I can catch guys over the last two hurdles.” Barr is likely to be trailing by several metres when he turns for home, but if he can keep himself within striking distance and unleash a similarly lethal last 100m as he did on Tuesday, this most unlikely story could have a fairytale ending.
“I’ll go out there with no pressure,” he said. “It’s a final. Anything can happen.”
No one saw it coming. Not his rivals, who faced a familiar helpless feeling when Barr loomed alongside them over the final barrier.
Not the Irish media, most of who were elsewhere in Rio when Barr produced one of the best performances in the history of Irish sprinting on Tuesday night. And certainly not the man himself, who thought the chances of him making an Olympic final were so remote that he didn’t even check what day it was on.
“Jesus,” he said, shortly after winning his semi-final in a national record of 48.39, “that is unreal. I’m shaking like a leaf. I can’t believe I’m standing here having run a 48-something. I didn’t think I had that time in me.” His scepticism was understandable, for Barr has been a shadow of his former self for much of the year.
“Last year I was on top of my game, but this year with injury and preparation, nothing was good,” he said. “I didn’t feel prepared. I’m just so excited and happy that everything came together.”
Barr narrowly missed out on a place in the final at the World Championships in Beijing last year, and though he started 2016 with this destination — an Olympic final — in mind, the lights began to go out on his dream as he lost track of his health and fitness in the spring. Barr exited at the semi-final stage of last month’s European Championships in Amsterdam, unable to dip below the 50-second barrier, a performance he had considered routine.
“It gave me a baseline and something to work on,” he said. “I was really frustrated in Amsterdam because I didn’t want to be a 50-point athlete, but I found each session I was getting more and more back to my old self. I was coming together and things were clicking into place.”
Before Tuesday’s race Barr walked like a man without a care in the world, bouncing around hyperactively and waving to Irish fans in the stands. There was a heavy burden of history working against him — no Irish athlete had made an Olympic sprint final since 1932 — but if he felt it, he certainly didn’t show it.
“I thought: ‘Why do I need to be nervous?’” he said. “It’s just like any other race so I’ll go out there and give it a lash.”
Traditionally a slow starter, Barr scorched the first 300 metres, turning into the home straight in fourth place and only a couple of metres from the lead. This is a position from which he can deliver haymaker surges over the final two barriers, and that’s exactly what he did, surging off the last hurdle to win in 48.39.
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