Thomas Barr’s near-miss ranks as one of Ireland’s finest

Waterford athlete was one stride away from bronze in Olympic 400m hurdles final

  Annsert Whyte,  Kerron Clement and  Thomas Barr in the 400m hurdles final. Photograph:   Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty

Annsert Whyte, Kerron Clement and Thomas Barr in the 400m hurdles final. Photograph: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty

 

Irish Olympic 400m hurdler Thomas Barr came close – 0.05 seconds, or about one stride away – to a bronze medal in an event where an Irish athlete last appeared in an Olympic final 84 years ago.

At those games, in Los Angeles in 1932, Bob Tisdall won the final in what was a world best at the time, 51.7 seconds. It was not ratified as a world record because he hit a hurdle. He was, however, celebrated as the first man to cover the distance in under 52 seconds.

Waterford man Barr, who last season won the World University Games 400m hurdles title, ran a new Irish record of 47.97 seconds in the Rio final, which saw four men finish under 48 seconds.

Fourth is the most difficult place to be in the Olympics, yet Barr’s achievement in this event, which requires sprinting speed, technical precision and endurance, deserves to be celebrated as one of the finest performances in Irish Olympic history.

Barr’s placing is impressive, particularly for the way in which he did it: tough, attacking and finishing strongly behind twice world champion Kerron Clement, who won yesterday’s final in 47.73, having taken silver in Beijing in 2008.

It is also heroic. At 24, Barr is a year younger than Tisdall was when he won in what was only his sixth run over the distance.

Tisdall belonged to a very different world. He was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1907, and raised in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, before being sent to an English public school, Shrewsbury.

He attended Cambridge University, won his Blue in a number of events and was a gifted all-rounder who also finished eighth in the Los Angeles decathlon. He died aged 97 in 2004, having participated in the Olympic torch relay in Sydney aged 93.

Barr studied at the University of Limerick, where he also completed a master’s degree in sports performance. He competes in a sport corrupted by drug use and shares the frustration of clean athletes who witness banned competitors casually come and go and often return following reinstatement, only to remain surrounded by doubt.

While the Olympic boxing tournament was marred by dubious judging, track and field – even with its clear-cut fastest/highest/farthest system – has to contend with drug detection and ongoing evasion.

Injury problems reduced Barr’s Olympic preparation to a shambles. He was one of three European athletes (along with a Turk and an Estonian) in a final that also included two Kenyans; Clement of the US; a Jamaican; and the London bronze medallist, Javier Culson of Puerto Rico, who was disqualified for a false start.

Since it was first run at the Paris Olympics in 1900, the men’s 400m hurdles has been dominated by the US. It has been run 26 times and 18 of the champions have been American, while US athletes have won 40 of the medals. They have achieved clean sweeps on five occasions.

US winners

Tisdall’s historic victory in 1932 was ahead of US silver and bronze medallists, while three Americans have won twice; Glenn Davis in 1956 and 1960; Edwin Moses in 1976 and 1984 (after missing Moscow 1980 due to a US boycott, he also took the bronze in 1988); and Angelo Taylor in 2000 at Sydney and again eight years later in Beijing.

Athletics has changed; with the exception of Jamaican men’s and women’s sprinting, the traditional power blocks have weakened and the medals are more widely dispersed.

Following the boxing disappointments and the ongoing ticket scandal, Barr showed that an Irish athlete could do almost as well on the land as yachtswoman Annalise Murphy and the O’Donovan brothers, Gary and Paul, in the lightweight double sculls, performed on the water.