Strong Irish contingent capable of stirring Letzigrund showing
Electric atmosphere plays part in ensuring 25 world records broken inside venue
Rob Heffernan: at age 36, and with 14 years of major championship experience latched on to his slender shoulders, Heffernan knows the exact meaning of the word “peak”. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Inpho
Some athletic arenas are instantly illuminated by their place in our sporting history, and the Letzigrund is not one of them.
As happy hunting grounds go, Zurich is no Helsinki, or Gothenburg, or indeed Budapest.
The relationship is often mere romance, although consider this: Eamonn Coghlan won his World Championship in Helsinki, in 1983, in the same stadium where Sonia O’Sullivan won her first European Championship, in 1994; O’Sullivan then won her World Championship in Gothenburg, in 1995, in the same stadium where Derval O’Rourke won her first European Championship silver, in 2006.
And when O’Sullivan won her European Championship double in Budapest in 1998 that came echoing back when Fionnuala Britton won her European Cross-Country double on the outskirts of the same city in 2012. And I could go on like this.
That’s not saying Zurich doesn’t hold its ground as a world famous athletics city.
Next week, the Letzigrund gets to stage its first major championship. But for almost 80 years it’s been staging the best one-day athletics meeting in the world – the suitably titled Weltklasse, German for “World Class”.
Built in 1924 by members of FC Zurich, who still play there, the Letzigrund avoided large-scale redevelopment when Switzerland hosted the 1954 World Cup, and instead has retained its neat, intimate, 25,000 capacity interior – the perfect nest for a 400m running track.
When packed for the Weltklasse (which it always is) the atmosphere is of loose electricity, wildly conducted by the crowd banging on the metal hoarding that surrounds the track.
No wonder 25 world records have been broken inside the Letzigrund, and not just those of the Mickey Mouse variety.
In 1960, Armin Hary from West Germany became the first man to run the 100m
in exactly 10.0 seconds. And in 2006 Asafa Powell from Jamaica also set a 100m world record at the Letzigrund, clocking 9.77. Seb Coe set two world records there – his 3:32.1 for 1,500m in 1979, and his 3:48.53 mile in 1981 – as did Haile Gebrselassie, both over 5,000m.
So this is the arena that 28 Irish athletes will get to savour next week, when the Letzigrund opens its door to Europe. Actually that’s not strictly true, as one of the athletes most capable of leaving a mark on these championships is Rob Heffernan, and he’ll be walking the streets of Zurich, not inside the Letzigrund.
For a man who delivered Ireland’s only global sporting title in 2013 there hasn’t been much hype about Heffernan’s quest for glory in Zurich, although that’s the way he likes it. Heffernan can count on one hand the number of times he’s competed this year, and he hasn’t actually raced over the 50km walk since winning his World Championship gold in Moscow last summer.
That’s because at age 36, and with 14 years of major championship experience latched on to his slender shoulders, Heffernan knows the exact meaning of the word “peak”, and that’s what Zurich has been all about.
Not many Irish athletes, no matter what the sport, replicate a championship winning season the following year, although so far Heffernan has got everything right.
He could have found a long list of excuses to bypass Zurich (a Moscow hangover, a time-out before Rio, a new baby daughter Regan to look after, etc) but instead he’s worked himself into the exact same level of conditioning, if not even better, having spent the last four weeks locked away at his altitude training camp in the Spanish Sierra Nevada.
Last week, Heffernan also discovered that he’s now due the bronze medal from the 20km walk at 2010 European Championships, in Barcelona, thanks to the retrospective banning of the Russian gold medallist, Stanislav Emelyanov, due to irregularities in his biological passport.
Knowing Heffernan that will be an added spur for Zurich, given the Russian walkers will once again provide his main opposition.
Heffernan can feel he ow
ns the Russians now. And it will take something exceptional to deny him a place on the medal podium here.
If anything, the Russians will be walking scared – given 17 of their so-called elite have now be done for doping in recent months.
The men’s 50km is scheduled for next Friday morning (8am Irish time), taking in a 2km circuit along the Limmat River on the verge of Lake Zurich, with the Swiss Alps as the backdrop.
Should Heffernan make the medal podium, that will mean standing inside the Letzigrund, later that day, just as the Friday evening athletics session gets underway.
By then, if Mark English and Thomas Barr can also maintain their peak into Zurich, there could be two other Irish medal opportunities within the hour – the men’s 800m final scheduled for 6.55pm, and the 400m hurdles for 7.52pm. English is currently ranked fourth best over 800m, and Barr third best over 400m hurdles, and neither athlete will be satisfied with anything less than a place in the final – and we all know what can happen then.
Not that the Irish medal hopes will begin and end next Friday.
Fionnuala Britton is not running the marathon on the Saturday morning for fun, even if her ultimate goal is two years down the road in Rio, and Ciarán Ó Lionáird, who has been polishing off his training in Florida, won’t fear anyone in Sunday’s 1,500m final, again assuming he makes it that far.
All of which means it should only be a matter of days before the Letzigrund finds its place in our sporting history.