John McDonnell, the Mayo man who has already coached four Irish middle distance Olympians, believes Johannesburg-born Alistair Cragg could be the surprise package for Ireland in tonight’s 5000m heats (5.50pm, Irish time).
Cragg has been under the tutelage of University of Arkansas head coach McDonnell for the past four years, with the 66-year-old shaping and guiding his star pupil towards a green-vested international future.
“Alistair had an Irish passport from his great grandmother’s side, and at his age, it was inevitable that he would want to run in Athens, and competing for Ireland was his best option,” admitted McDonnell.
Twenty-four-year-old Cragg first ran for Ireland when finishing eighth at the European Cross Country championships two years ago in Leopardstown.
McDonnell, who originally came from his Crossmolina base to New York in 1964 to fulfil his dream of becoming a TV cameraman, coached some of Ireland’s greatest middle-distance talents of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – seeing scholarship students like Niall O’Shaughnessy (1976, 800m, 1500m), Frank O’Mara (1984, 1500m; 1988, 1992, 5000m), Paul Donovan (1984, 1500m; 1992, 5000m) and Niall Bruton (1500m, 1996) compete at the Olympics.
Now Cragg, who broke O’Mara’s 13-year-old Irish 3000m indoor record last February in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is the next in that production line and McDonnell is confident of a good result in Athens.
“I think Alistair can be a finalist, but bear in mind he’s a young guy just out of college,” he said. “I’d like to see him run 13:05, which I think he is very capable of doing. He has the consistency in his running, but will be against a tough field.
“His best years might be three or four years down the road but, if he makes the final, it would be a tremendous experience for him.”
If he does, McDonnell will try his best to make it to the Olympic stadium for Saturday night, but with Cragg lowering his best to 13:12.74 only recently, it may be just beyond the talented six-footer.
Leevale’s Mark Carroll goes in the second heat (6.10pm), with both Irish athletes looking to fill a top-five place, or qualify as one of five fastest losers.