Cragg is targeting place in top eight

ALISTAIR CRAGG ends a 16-year barren spell in Irish men's athletics when he lines up for the 5,000m final in the Olympic Stadium tonight.

Marcus O'Sullivan and John Doherty's outings in the 1,500m and 5,000m respectively in Seoul were the last times when Irish males were represented in Olympic track finals.

Now the 24-year-old South African-born runner has bridged that gap and will, according to coach John McDonnell, create a new Irish distance racing dynasty.

"I knew he would make the final and a top eight finish will be his target," said McDonnell who has moulded the new talent at the University of Arkansas.

"I am disappointed I cannot get over but I have been in touch with him on a regular basis by phone. I watched the race on television and it is obvious there will be more Olympics down the line for Alistair."

Cragg will line up in a field with Hicham El Guerrouj, the new Olympic 1,500m champion, and Kenenisa Bekele, the young 10,000m champion, both battling for a second gold at these games.

They embarked on similar missions at the World Championships last year, only to be thwarted by world junior cross-country champion, Eliud Kipchoge, who ran the last 200m in 26.3 seconds to produce a record-breaking 12:52.79.

Kipchoge is back in the field this evening, while Bekele and El Guerrouj came through the first heat with a 19-year-old Ethiopian, Gebre Egziabher, separating them.

Bekele, with world records at both 5,000m and 10,000m, is favourite to land the title, with El Guerrouj's thirst quenched perhaps by his overdue win in the 1,500m.

Cragg has no fear of the Africans.

"They have been trying to beat me since I was a kid," he pointed out.

Wednesday night's nerves are now forgotten and focus is fully restored.

"I did not want to give it everything, afraid I might make the final and have nothing left," he admitted.

"Now I have made the final things will be different. I am new to this. All those guys are experienced Olympians. I can only do my best."

He admitted he felt strong in the heat and could have done more had he been under pressure, but was happy to qualify among the fastest losers after finishing seventh.

"I still have a lot to learn," he said.

"I have had a great college career but this is the real deal. We have world champions and Olympic champions and I am only learning the trade."

But he has a great teacher in McDonnell, who shaped the careers of Niall O'Shaughnessy, Frank O'Mara, Paul Donovan and Niall Bruton.

"I would not be running if it was not for John. I get nervous whenever I am away from him. I just do whatever he says and he is always right.

"I wanted to get to the final and I've achieved that. Now my goal is a top eight placing and if I do better I will accept it as a bonus."

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