AS THE world track and field championships in Helsinki mercifully fade from memory for Irish fans, the timing of this latest nadir for athletics in this country is given added poignancy by the anniversary today of a remarkable event in Irish sports history.
It was 20 years ago, on August 17, 1985, that a quartet of Irishmen, Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara and Ray Flynn, confirmed their status as some of the greatest runners this country has known.
What made the date remarkable was that their feats did not take place at an Olympics or a World championships, not even a European meet, but at a charity event at UCD’s Belfield Stadium.
The quartet were brought together for a 4xmile relay race to raise funds for aid agency GOAL and all four athletes reeled off sub-four minute miles to clock 15:49.08 for a world record that still stands today.
And just to underline the depth of talent at Ireland’s disposal back then, the opposition for their record run included an Irish B team of Dave Taylor, Paul Donovan, Tommy Moloney and John Treacy.
It was indeed a golden era for Irish sport and athletics was no exception. Coghlan captured the world championship 5000m crown in 1983, O’Sullivan won the European indoor 1500m title and O’Mara won the 3000m with his Irish and University of Arkansas team-mate Donovan second, while Flynn was a constant feature at the top of the world milers’ lists.
Their coming together produced a night O’Sullivan ranks as one of the most memorable of his glittering career. It was one he recalled at the weekend as he picked cantaloupes on the New Jersey family farm he escapes to each summer when his head coaching duties with the Villanova College track and field team are over for another season in Philadelphia.
“If you look at what we put together that evening, for one country to do that was a pretty neat achievement,” said O’Sullivan. “Every one of us was under four minutes on the same evening and that’s something special.
“We didn’t realise at the time that we were in the midst of a golden era in terms of track and field and mileing in particular. I don’t think we appreciated it as much as we should have but, looking back, it was the perfect example of how much depth we had as a nation. To be able to go out and put two relay teams together - I mean, on the B team John Treacy put in a four-minute mile that night, and there was Tommy Moloney and Dave Taylor and Paul Donovan.”
Aside from the runners, Ireland that summer was awash with winners: Dennis Taylor was world snooker champion, the national team had landed rugby’s Triple Crown and Barry McGuigan had won the WBA world featherweight boxing championship.
Perhaps more relevant though was the fact that this was the year of Live Aid - July 13 at Wembley and in Philadelphia. The world’s top acts turned up, including U2, and those at home more than played their part when it emerged Ireland was the concerts’ highest ‘per-capita’ donor.
Another Irishman had eight years earlier thrown his life into the alleviation of suffering of the world’s poorest people. Journalist John O’Shea founded the international humanitarian agency GOAL in 1977. Having been at the forefront of the relief effort in India and Cambodia, Ethiopia’s famine during the 80s was high on GOAL’s priority list.
O’Shea tracked the runners down to Switzerland that July where they were running at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich.
“It all came about through John O’Shea’s strong-arming,” recalled O’Sullivan. “I can’t remember when exactly it was we agreed but it was only four weeks at tops before we were meant to run and that’s fairly short notice. It wasn’t a year in advance or anything.
“John showed up in Zurich and basically challenged us to come home and do this thing. He half jolted us into doing it because we were myopically focused on what we were doing in life and not really taking time out to think about others, just typical athletes - not that we weren’t good people.
“John talked us into coming which was a brave thing to do because you’ve only got so many races in a season and we were giving one up for something we didn’t quite understand at the time. To us it was just ‘come home and run a relay’ when it’s the second half of the season and it’s tough and you’re just tired.”
John Treacy was another volunteer despite not being a miler at all. The previous summer in Los Angeles he had delighted the nation by taking the Olympic silver medal in the marathon and his competitive experience over 1/36th of that distance amounted to one outing every 12 months.
“I usually ran only one mile a year,” said Treacy, now chairman of the Irish Sports Council. “And that was the one mile for that year. It was a great night and a fantastic atmosphere in the stadium and a huge crowd.”
O’Sullivan had not been confident it would turn out that way.
“I was like the doubting Thomas, kind of dragging my ass to get there, thinking this is another race I don’t need. We arrived at around 6.30pm, and there’s nobody there at the stadium, no-one. So I’m thinking, Jesus, what’s going on here?
“We went off to warm up for about 45 minutes on the college grounds and when we went back the place was packed. It was just one of those evenings, like going to a party and you don’t know what’s going to happen and you’re not sure you’re going to enjoy it, but it turns out to be one of the best nights in your life.
“The aim was to try and build the whole evening around a world record attempt and it was an incredible turnout in the end. And no entrance fee, just a collection box. They were just passing a bucket round.
“The whole evening was building and building to our race. A lot of the cyclists showed up (including Stephen Roche) and did a bike race and all the boxers were there, it was just an eclectic bunch of top athletes who all showed up to give their support.”
There were other motivations at work, however, as Treacy recalled.
“I remember turning up and Eamonn was out of shape. He’d been injured for some time and there was talk of me running in the A team in his place. Someone asked me what I would run and I told them ‘four minutes’, which wasn’t bad for someone who wasn’t a miler, not at all bad.
“So this got back to Eamonn and when they told him John Treacy was going to run four minutes, he told them ‘forget it’, but not exactly those words, ‘if John Treacy is going to run four minutes, I’m not going to leave him to do it on his own.”
So it proved. Coghlan took his place on the opening leg, against Treacy for the B team and both men ran sub-four.
“Someone led us out for the first couple of laps and then we got going and I remember pushing him every step of the way, staying on his shoulder,” added Treacy. “I was going as hard as I could and so was Eamonn, considering he was injured and going down the final straight we were neck and neck. It was Eamon’s pride that got him running like that. He wasn’t in shape but he wasn’t going to be beaten by me and it was fitting he was on that team.”
Coghlan handed over to O’Sullivan, then came O’Mara with Flynn taking over for the last leg all running under four minutes, breaking the world record and collecting about £20,000 in those buckets.
“We were all leaving and saying to each other ‘that was great wasn’t it?’ I came away from it feeling just so high,” said O’Sullivan, “and I suppose in many ways it was the quintessential evening of what we were all about at that time.
“We left feeling as high as a kite and feeing that this was what it was all about. We always got along well, all of us, the Irish athletes and I think we all at least gave the appearance we were enjoying what we were doing, that money wasn’t the end all of why we were in it and that evening summed it up I think. It was a kind of a benchmark in our lives to what an evening should be, an event.
“There was nothing on the line that night and yet if I had to name five memorable races that would be right up there. It was just so energetic and full of life, full of everything.”