We repair to Santry to rekindle our love of the sport

Then the gun fired for the start of the 800 metres and with that came the classic affirmation of everything that is bright and true and believable about the sport, that still unique expression of pure, honest endeavour, in the form of 20-year-old Mark English


We were somewhere around Glencree heading towards Sally Gap when my phone rang for the third time. “Go on, answer it,” said Freddie, dancing off the pedals of his new Trek 1 Series, looking suspiciously leaner than last week.

“Never mind,” I said, sucking on another caffeinated gel. “Don’t spoil that rhythm now.”

Besides, it was dusk already, we’d some tough road ahead, and that Guarana seed tablet hadn’t kicked in yet.

The rest of the evening was a blur. The muttering voice message about Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell. The front-page write off and 35 minutes to do it. The Red Rooster Coffee, dripping away in the background, the sweet little pieces of Lindt 85 per cent, as intense as ever, all going down the little red hatch, working up the perfect caffeine frenzy.

(Note on the Red Rooster label: “You’ve been warned: excess consumption can lead to completion of assignments, heightened activity, disappearance of headaches, and a general sense of well being.”)

Monday was about trying to make sense of it all, not easily done when two of the pillars of world sprinting come crumbling down: haunted by David Gillick’s remark that track and field was losing all credibility, that he was finding it impossibly hard now to defend the sport he loves, it was suddenly six o’clock and not a line written. Time to “get busy”, as the sports editor likes to say, and another caffeine binge to wash down the mega doses of Vitamin Z.

Pharmaceutical world
All of this is what happens when we live in a pharmaceutical world, and why those ancient South American tribes knew exactly what they were doing when they began chewing on coca leaves. It’s also the reason why the problem of doping in sport and the biting condescending voice that comes with it will never go away, why now more than ever credibility is in the eye of the beholder – at least until someone draws a line between a minor stimulant and a properly dangerous steroid, and brings in lifetime bans for anyone who crosses that line.

For some people it doesn’t matter anyway and never did – the Freddies of this world, who as long as they can ride their bikes over the Wicklow Mountains a little quicker than the week before, then hurry home to watch the highlights of the Tour de France, couldn’t care less what Tyson Gay is rubbing onto his face or what Chris Froome is mixing into his soup.

It’s also the reason why my brother asked me: “Are you looking for Jesus amongst the trash?” when I told him we should go to the Morton Games in Santry on Wednesday evening, just to rekindle some of that old love of the sport. He’s always been a little sarcastic like this and yet still loves the sport better than anyone. Anyway, it worked, Santry being blessed with one of those sacredly balmy evenings that somehow felt like a throwback to a more innocent and elegant time, the Rudyard Kipling era of filling the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run.

Determined not to be corrupted or tainted or sabotaged by any talk or thoughts of oxilofrine we sat alone in the still warm sunlight on the old concrete terrace down along the backstretch, which back in my day was actually the homestretch, where the fantastic possibilities of this sport first began to shine.

There weren’t many of us there and we were there not because we needed to or necessarily wanted to but were somehow drawn to, perhaps not unlike the old elephants who limp off to the hills before they die.

Then the gun fired for the start of the 800 metres and with that came the classic affirmation of everything that is bright and true and believable about the sport, that still unique expression of pure, honest endeavour, in the form of 20 year-old Mark English.

When he coolly moved onto the shoulder of the leader with 200m to go, perfectly upright, floating at high speed, it was as if we could hear his heart pound, that moment when every athlete faces the question: “Right, now, what are you made of?”

As if on cue English responded by hitting the front, with a brilliantly deceptive burst of acceleration that drags all blood from the brain, and after a slight glance to his right, then a slight grimace, the gentle clenching of the fists, visible from even the far side of the track, announced his victory – and yes beautifully reminiscent of a young Seb Coe.

The comparison is justified: English had just run 1:45.32, only one Irish man has ever run quicker, and everything about his run can be traced back to the same wonderfully raw talent which has always beggared belief, no matter what the sport or sporting individual, at least to some extent.

Thanks to the 20-year-old from Letterkenny the sport also seemed fantastically fresh with possibilities once again. This same old wonderfully raw talent might also explain why one man can run 9.58 seconds for the 100m while more and more of the men around him fall further behind or simply fall from grace, or indeed that might all be explained by something else.

The more burning question at the end the week is not so much whether track and field is losing all credibility or not, but whether some of the methods still used to police it are now outdated, and what exactly is and is not doping, when even those of us sitting in the terraces are living so positively in the same pharmaceutical world.

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