Oh my goodness, Mark English loses out in 800 metres that simply made no sense

Irish athlete gave it everything in Sopot yesterday but failed to progress in a race where only the winners and fastest losers progressed

Mark English after finishing fourth in his 800m heat at the IAAF World Indoor Athletics Championships in the  Ergo Arena in Sopot. Photograph: Adam Jastrzebowski/Inpho

Mark English after finishing fourth in his 800m heat at the IAAF World Indoor Athletics Championships in the Ergo Arena in Sopot. Photograph: Adam Jastrzebowski/Inpho

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 08:00

Oh Mercy. Or, as Tim Hutchings found himself saying on Eurosport on more than one occasion, “oh goodness me”. And we weren’t the only ones trying to make sense of it.

Over on the BBC, Paula Radcliffe reckoned it was “crazy”, and Steve Cram, in one of the finest understatements in sporting commentating history, described it as “pretty tough”. Indeed “pretty impossible” might have been a better choice of words.

Because if championship athletics is at least partly about trying to progress through the qualifying heats then there was no sense at all in the way the 800 metres was run over in Sopot yesterday.

The World Indoors, heavily condensed into three days, have always been an exercise in extremely tight margins, and in the 15 editions of these championships, no athlete has ever got away with anything easy.

Steve Ovett once tried indoor running, not out of any great will or desire, but simply to break up his winter training. Not only did Ovett find the extremely tight margins pretty impossible to deal with, he also compared the whole experience to running around in a bathtub, and after just a couple of laps, found himself being washed down the drain.

Indeed indoor running has always been a very different ball game to outdoor running, especially in trying to navigate the qualifying heats.

“It’s not about the quickest times,” Cram shrewdly pointed out on BBC yesterday, “but all about how you position yourself”.

‘Like a lottery’
But rarely has an athlete had to WIN their qualifying heat to be certain of progressing. And yet, somebody, somewhere, decided the 800m at these championships – for the men and the women – would be run “like a lottery”, again quoting Hutchings, a man who, when it comes to these matters, knows what he’s talking about.

For Mark English, the 20-year-old from Donegal – who last month improved the Irish senior indoor record to a classy 1:46.82 – that effectively meant winning his qualifying heat, or running very close to it, in an event stacked with classy runners, all trying to work off the same extremely tight margins. Because from the three heats, only the winners, plus the three fastest losers, went through to Sunday’s six-man final.

Unfortunately for English, his numbers didn’t come up, and while he clearly emptied his tank to run 1:47.60, he ended up fourth in his heat, and 12th-ranked overall.

In other years, there were semi-finals – and given the 48-hour layover before Sunday’s final, it’s not like there wasn’t time for them here, too.

If the number of race entrants didn’t entirely stack up, and didn’t entirely justify the staging of semi-finals, then the better option would have been to take the first two finishers from each heat – and forget about the fastest losers: that would at least have made for more honest racing.

Also left short
English wasn’t the only man run out of Sopot without much chance to keep on running. The American Nick Symmonds, silver medallist from last summer’s outdoor World Championships in Moscow, was also left short with his 1:47.29, in heat two, and in the first heat, Mohammed Aman, the reigning world champion indoors and out, was the only man to make it through.

Still, Hutchings sounded quite impressed by “English, the Irishman” when he latched onto the Kenyan, Jeremiah Mutai, for the opening two laps.

And English was running impressively, and even when dropping to fourth over the last lap, never gave up the chase. His 1:47.60 would actually have been good enough to medal in several of the previous editions of these champions, this also being his first proper season of indoor running.

So, for now, maybe the only sense that can be made of it all is in the “experience” sense – even if that word is too often quoted when it comes to championship athletics.

“Well I gave it everything, left it all on the track,” English said afterwards, still trying to hold back to the urge to vomit that naturally occurs after most indoor 800m races.

‘Tactical element’
“I felt I executed that race perfectly, and wouldn’t change anything. I just didn’t have it on the last lap, in the legs, and almost fell over the line. There was a little bit of argy-bargy, but I love that tactical element. So no regrets.”

This was a fair and honest assessment, the truth being English both needs and values this sort of experience, assuming he makes it all count come the European Championships in Zurich next August.

The same goes for both Irish representatives in the women’s 800m yesterday – Rose-Anne Galligan and Ciara Everard – who found the going ever harder in their similarly tight qualifying heats.

Both ran an indoor season best, with that justifying their selection, but again the experience won’t count for anything unless it’s put to some use in Zurich next August.

The only regret then, perhaps, rests with David McCarthy, who fell just one place short of qualifying for the 1,500m final – an event where Ireland has won three gold medals, all thanks to Marcus O’Sullivan.

McCarthy finished sixth in his heat, clocking 3:39.46, fifth-placed Ilham Tanui Özbilen from Turkey going through with his 3:39.31.

These are the sort of extremely tight margins I’m talking about, the other problem being the opportunities that come with them, both indoors or outdoors, will always be few and far between.

Still some Irish athletes, not just those in Sopot, can’t seem to make sense of that.

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