Much-missed Noel Carroll would have been a perfect fit for Mark English

A slice of Japan’s Olympic stadium is up for grabs which brings back memories of one of Ireland’s greatest 800m runners

Mark English at the World Championships in Moscow.

Mark English at the World Championships in Moscow.

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 06:00

For ¥250,000 (€1,793) you can buy a pair of Royal Seats, and ¥1,800 (€12.90) will buy you a 5cm2 slice of the infield. The only thing not for sale is the Olympic Cauldron itself, although even in Japan it seems nothing is really sacred anymore.

Because, 50 years after staging the 1964 Olympics and presenting the world with a symbol of Japan’s post-World War II recovery, the bulldozers are moving in to flatten the entire lot. Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium may not hold up as the most magnificent of arenas, but it had a history pouring out of its soul that can never be rebuilt, and a place in Japan’s sporting spirit that can never be mimicked.

When, last September, Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, something was bound to give, and despite a series of objections, they’ve now agreed to spend €1.1 billion on a boldly modern replacement, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and already dubbed “the bicycle helmet”. They won’t be finished until 2019, just in time for Japan’s staging of the Rugby World Cup, with Tokyo being that final venue.

Still, going online to purchase a slice of the old Tokyo infield sounded like the perfect Father’s Day gift, until I remembered he didn’t have particularly fond memories of running there. He’s not alone. Just seven Irish athletes qualified for Tokyo, and the only one to make it out of the heats was Derek McCleane, in the 800 metres.

Tokyo experience

Not that their Tokyo experience didn’t stand to them for the rest of their lives. Noel Carroll, fifth in his 800m heat, also went on to run in Mexico 1968, and soon become one of the wisest heads in Irish distance running history, before his sudden death – mid-stride, as it were – after his regular noontime training run around UCD, in October 1998.

Carroll will never be forgotten in Irish athletics, although it’s only when hearing that Mark English is looking for a new coach that you remember how much he is missed. English brings exactly the same sort of thrill to Irish 800m running as Carroll did back in the 1960s: tall, confident, and ambitious, English also shares a deep appreciation of two-lap running, and all the tactical idiosyncrasies that come with it. Think David Rudisha versus David Wottle and you’ll realise there are very different ways to win over 800m.

Carroll’s ability for mid-race machination was once described as “like a scene-shifter at the Abbey Theatre”, and in his New York Times obituary, he was remembered as a “hulking half-miler, built more like a tight end, or maybe two-half milers, but who set Irish, European and world records, and helped establish Villanova as a showcase for a generation of Irish track stars”.

Indeed when Villanova’s famous coach Jumbo Elliott first saw how fluently Carroll moved his bulk around the old Madison Square Garden indoor track he offered him a scholarship on the spot.

For a man who left school at 13 and held a series of jobs before beginning his running career with the army Carroll also had a razor sharp intelligence that he carried over into his 24 high-profile years as press officer for Dublin Corporation. Part of that intelligence was in realising that no athlete should take themselves too seriously, and one of his first lessons to budding young runners was reminding them that “athletics is a way of proving you’re better than someone else at something that’s of no use to anybody”.

Carroll had such a lasting impression on anyone that met him that I still quote him on a daily basis, and his brilliant line, “if you find yourself too busy to run on any given day, then you’re too busy”. And each time I go for that run I think of his other brilliant line, about breathing: “Don’t worry about getting the air out, worry about getting the air in.”

Honoured every year

This pure love of 800m running is now honoured every year, with this afternoon’s staging of the Noel Carroll 800m – as part of the Irish Milers Club/GV Ryan meeting at Irishtown Stadium, in south Dublin. This year, they’ve added the Ronnie Delany 1,500m, which has the not entirely simple ambition of bettering the 3.41.20 which Delany ran to win his Olympic gold medal, now 58 years ago. There are worse ways of spending a Saturday afternoon than strolling down for a look.

For English, meanwhile, there is the slightly more daunting prospect of this evening’s New York Diamond League meeting – where he takes on none other than Rudisha himself. This week, English announced he was amicably splitting with his coach Teresa McDaid, who has nurtured him since his schoolboy days in St Eunan’s Letterkenny.

It was a simple case of McDaid bringing him as far as she could, and English, now 21, naturally wants to kick on. Having already broken the Irish indoor record with his 1:46.82, earlier this year, he can rightly feel it’s time to take the outdoor record of 1.44.82, which has stood to David Matthews since 1995. Last summer English ran 1:44.84.

Which is where his new coach will come in. Finding those extra split seconds over 800m is not easy, and requires a coach who can challenge, inspire and enthuse in equal measure, not just get the athlete to race from A to B. That process becomes better again if the coach can somehow act as a father figure, on a daily basis, and why Noel Carroll would have been such a perfect fit.

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