Cragg craving place in final

ALISTAIR CRAGG takes another step on an amazing career path when he lines up for the semi-finals of the 5,000m in Athens tonight.

Cragg’s amazing journey to Greece began in his native South Africa, was shaped in Arkansas and involved only a brief visit to the land of his forefathers earlier this year.

Though he may have little experience of Ireland, his appearance here is due to the efforts of a Mayo man who has taken charge of his career.

Yesterday, Cragg heaped praise on John McDonnell, the legendary coach at the University of Arkansas, who has done so much to get him here.

After a short foray on the European circuit, ending up with his first Irish senior title over 1,500m at the national championships a few weeks ago, Cragg jetted straight back to Arkansas to join his coach. And since he came to Athens on Sunday they have been in regular contact.

Should make it through to Saturday evening’s 5,000m final McDonnell will try to be by his side.

“I get nervous whenever I am away from John McDonnell,” said Cragg. “I just do whatever he says and he is always right. I want to get to the final. I have not come to Athens just to be here.

“Being an Olympian is not good enough for me. I don’t want to sit back and think I’ve made it, I’m here now. I have come here to be in the final and a top eight in the final is my goal and anything above that will be a bonus.”

Though born and raised in South Africa, Cragg qualified for an Irish passport as his grandmother’s family hailed from Killarney and Dublin. Ironically though, it was his experiences in Arkansas which shaped him into an Irish Olympian.

There he was tutored by McDonnell. The Crossmolina native, who trained Frank O’Mara and Paul Donovan, quickly began to work his magic.

“I have been a raw piece of clay that he has moulded,” said Cragg.

“I would not be running today if John McDonnell was not coaching me. If I am out of the country and away from him for any length of time I feel anxious,” he said.

“People always ask what makes him so special. He is just a normal guy and his great strength is in the fact that he is really good at spotting talent. He gets a guy and he makes him hungry. Anyone can coach ­ it’s just numbers and figures and distances - but he is special.”

Tonight Cragg will line up for the semi-final of the 5,000m alongside the likes of Hicham El Guerrouj, Kenenisa Bekele, who will be bidding to complete the 5,000m/10,000m double and Craig Mottram the rising star from Australia. With the first five from each of two heats to qualify, along with the five fastest losers he knows he may have to run close to the new career best of 13:12.74 if he is to qualify for Saturday’s final.

Mark Carroll will be making his second Olympic appearance when he goes in the second heat, which could be a more tactical race involving John Kibowen (13:01.32 this season) and Ali Saidi Sief of Algeria (13:07.37).

Carroll, who holds all the Irish records from 3,000m to 10,000m, missed out on the Atlanta Olympics with a late injury and crashed out in the Sydney 5,000m after an amazing first round heat. The Corkman missed out when, at one point, he appeared to have not only qualification but the race itself at his mercy.

It was a sobering experience, particularly when, a couple of days later, he sat and watched as Million Wolde from Ethiopia won the gold medal in a modest 13:35.49 from Ali Saidi Sief, who goes in Cragg’s heat this evening.

lPaul Brizzel finished sixth in his first round heat of the 200m yesterday in a seasonal beat time of 21.00 secs which placed him 38th of the 54 competitors.

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