When we were Kings: Ireland’s magic milers

Paul Robinson’s recent world best time of 4:17.9 for a mile run in sub-zero Antarctica recalled memories of a previous era when Ireland’s leading milers competed at elite level and helped to rewrite the record books.

Irish athletes, have a distinguished record in miling and have broken every barrier associated with the event, four of them hold the world 4x1-mile relay record since 1985, another has run 101 sub-4-minute miles, two have broken the sub-3:50 figure for the distance one of whom was the first 40-year-old to run the distance in less than 4 minutes.

At least 50 Irish athletes have made the journey in less than four minutes and Ronnie Delany and Eamonn Coghlan have established indoor world records for the distance.

Delany laid down the foundation for Irish middle distance running. In 1895, Tommy Conneff, a native of Clane, Co Kildare, in a race held at Travers Island, New York ran the fastest mile of the 19th century by an amateur athlete (4:15.6) and this time remained untouched by an Irish athlete until August 1947 when John Joe Barry established a new Irish national record.

Barry was to set four more national mile records over a two-year period but his flirtation with athletic greatness was relatively brief, as the monasticism essential to achieve athletic greatness proved unattractive.

Then came Delany who broke the mould of Irish athletic stagnation and mediocrity and his exploits inspired a generation.

Apart from his Olympic 1500m title in 1956, Delany also assembled one of the finest winning streaks in athletics history as he recorded 40 successive indoor victories in the USA between March 1955 and March 1959.

The unbeaten streak included 33 successive mile victories. He was also the first Irish athlete to run a sub-4-minute mile.

His time of 3:59.00, recorded at Compton in California in May 1956, made him the seventh and the then youngest member of the most exclusive club in the world of sport: the men who had run a mile in less than four minutes.

Delany proved conclusively that the American athletic scholarship system worked, the words Villanova and Jumbo Elliott entered the vocabulary of the Irish sports follower and a stream of promising Irish athletes availed of the opportunity for an academic and athletic education in the USA.

The value of this system was seen to greatest effect in the 1980s when several Irish scholarship athletes competed successfully at the highest level of the sport in a period of sustained excellence that may never be repeated.

Some of their exploits in the mile distance are documented here.

Ray Flynn’s National Record

Ray Flynn’s Irish mile record of 3:49.77 celebrated its 35th birthday last year and the mark is now firmly embedded in the category of Irish athletic records that may never be broken, especially when one considers that only Sean Tobin ran the distance in less than four minutes in 2017.

On July 7, 1982, Flynn was part of an Oslo cast that included Steve Scott and John Walker in the Dream Mile. Scott was on a world record-breaking mission but his finishing time of 3:47.69 was outside Seb Coe’s world record (3:47.33). Scott was chased strongly by Flynn, who in turn was passed by John Walker in the final sprint for the line. Walker’s time of 3:49.08 also survives as the New Zealand national record.

Marcus O’Sullivan’s 101
Sub-4 minute miles

In the history of athletics only three athletes, Steve Scott (136), John Walker (124) and Marcus O’Sullivan (101), have raced the mile in a time of less than four minutes on more than 100 occasions.

O’Sullivan completed his century on February 13, 1998 when he finished in third place in the Wanamaker Mile at Madison Square Garden, New York in a time of 3:58.1. O’Sullivan, the last Irish athlete recruited to Villanova by the legendary Jumbo Elliott, ran his first sub-4-minute mile (3:58.84) 15 years earlier in the notoriously slow indoor arena in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Finding his Chapel Hill trophy in the basement of his New Jersey home inspired O’Sullivan to chase the dream of a century of sub-4 miles. “I was thinking of retiring from athletics. I was cleaning out my basement when I came across the trophy I won for my first sub-four in Chapel Hill in 1983… That’s when I decided to go for the 100, which means entry to a pretty exclusive club… It has helped greatly to keep me motivated over the past several seasons,” O’Sullivan explained on the historic occasion.

The quest had been immensely rewarding and enhancing for the Leevale athlete: “I’ve learned more about myself and the sport and training and what to do and what not to do than ever before in my life.

“It’s like a light came on in a room and I knew for the first time where everything was. I don’t believe I would have reached that pinnacle of understanding had it not been for the circumstances that have me here tonight.”

O’Sullivan’s portfolio of achievements also includes three world indoor titles (1987, 1989 and 1993) as well as 6 Wanamaker Mile titles.

The Relay World Record

John O’Shea, the founder of Goal, the international aid charity, was a man on a mission when he travelled to Zurich in August 1985.

His intention was to recruit three of the world’s leading milers, Frank O’Mara, Marcus O’Sullivan and Ray Flynn to form a quartet with Eamonn Coghlan to launch an attack on the world 4x1-mile relay record, at the Goal meet scheduled for UCD’s Belfield Track on August 17, 1985.

O’Shea was successful in his quest but Coghlan hesitated. He had missed the entire summer season with an assortment of injuries and he hadn’t done a track session in six months. Although his fellow milers weren’t as keen on Coghlan’s inclusion as O’Shea was, his involvement was important to the occasion for promotional and athletic reasons and the uncompromising O’Shea was in no mood to listen to any excuses.

Coghlan was chosen to anchor the team and was pitted against John Treacy in the opening leg because as Coghlan later recorded in Chairman of the Boards ‘they knew that pride alone would force me to stay ahead of John, especially over a mile’. Treacy pushed Coghlan all the way and he handed over the baton to Marcus O’Sullivan after running the opening leg in 4:00.02; O’Sullivan’s leg of 3:55.3 was the fastest of the four, Frank O’Mara was marginally slower in 3:55.6 before Ray Flynn brought the baton home in 3:56.98 for a time of 15:49.08 which smashed the existing world record of 15:59.57 held by New Zealand. The record is still intact.

The First Sub-3:50.00
Indoors

In 1982, Eamonn Coghlan, owner of 15 of the 20 fastest indoor miles in the history of the sport at the time, was voted by track statisticians and writers as the greatest indoor miler in history. On February 27, 1983, Coghlan reported to the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey for the Vitalis/Olympic Invitation race with a sub 3:50.0 mile on his mind.

The seven-man field included, Steve Scott, Jose Abascal and Ray Flynn, three of the era’s top milers. Pace-maker Ross Donoghue took the field through the first 880 yards in 1:55.7 and stepped off the track earlier than intended. Coghlan became the front-runner and with two laps left, Coghlan sprinted for glory and crossed the line in a new-world indoor record time of 3:49.78. It was the first sub-3:50.0 indoor mile in athletics history and the first sub-3:50 mile achieved in the USA. Only Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco), who holds the current world record of 3:48.45, has beaten Coghlan’s time.

Twelve years later, on 20 February 1994, Coghlan achieved another significant first when he became the first athlete over 40 years of age to break the sub-4 minute barrier for the mile when he covered the distance in a time of 3:58.15, in a special event staged at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Track and Field News recognised the achievement by putting ‘ageless Eamonn’ on the cover and described how history was created under the headline ‘The Old Man Does It’.

The Family Sub-4

Only 10 father-son combinations have recorded sub-4-minute miles. Eamonn Coghlan has broken the barrier on 75 occasions and when his son John ran 3:59.32 at Boston in January 2012, the Coghlan father-son combination became the seventh such combination to achieve the distinction. The strength in depth of Irish athletics at the time also reflected in John Treacy’s Olympic silver medal and Eamonn Coghlan’s world title in a golden decade for the sport in Ireland.

Tom Hunt is the author of The Little Book of Irish Athletics



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