Thomas Barr aiming to go out with a bang as European Championships and Olympics approach

Athlete says ‘there’s no reason why we can’t be coming home from European Championships with a medal around our necks’

We already know two things about Thomas Barr in advance of his sixth consecutive European Athletics Championships: he has a high level of consistency, and he has an unfailingly positive attitude.

If any fresh evidence was required of the latter, Barr posted a social media message on Tuesday, before leaving for Rome where the championships begin on Friday, displaying his flight departure time delayed from 9am to 2pm.

“Off to a good start on the road to Rome, the 3am start was all in vain,” he wrote, followed by laughing emojis aplenty.

Barr turns 32 next month, two days before the Paris Olympics begin. It’s not exactly ancient by running standards in the 400m hurdles, although it will be eight years since the Waterford athlete ran the fastest time of his life, 47.97 seconds, to finish fourth in the Rio Olympics – just .05 off bronze.

READ MORE

Two years later, Barr won bronze at the 2018 European Championships in Berlin, but since then his luck could be politely described as lousy. At the delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021, he clipped a hurdle late on and missed the final by one place, still running 48.26, the second fastest time of his life.

At the last European Championships in Munich, he also missed the final by one place. Then last July, a week after winning his 11th national title in Santry, he tore a calf muscle, forcing his withdrawal from what would have been his fifth successive World Championships in Budapest.

“I suppose I’m probably coming towards the end of my career, I’m not sure how much longer I have left,” Barr says, refusing to give himself an an ultimatum by saying this will be his last season.

“So I wasn’t going to pass up the European Championships, even in an Olympic year. I live for racing, for championships. This is my favourite part of the year so I wanted to make sure I got in as much as I could, and I definitely do feel like I have a point to prove now.”

Barr first ran the European Championships in 2012, the first of the now biennial cycle (the 2020 championships were cancelled outright due to Covid-19). Two years later, still just shy of his 22nd birthday, he lowered the Irish record to 48.90, the first Irishman to run sub-49.

He was by then a diligent student of his event, well able to reference Edwin Moses’s 122-race winning streak (nine years, nine months and nine days, from August 1977 to June 1987), and the technical challenge involved (one lap of sprinting over 10 hurdles, each 3ft high, the first one placed 45m into the first bend, the other nine placed 35m apart, leaving a 40m stretch to the finish line).

“And I am still learning,” he says, “and the longer I’m in it the more I realise that there is to learn. Even going into this first bout of competition, I feel like I was learning about strike patterns again because if I told you how much training I had done over the hurdles since January, you would think I was lying.

“One thing is to maintain a cool head and use my smarts when it comes to racing, where my fitness or my speed might not be up to scratch. Then the smarts really can pay dividends in the 400m hurdles.”

His best this season is 49.58, outside the top 12 in Europe, which means he must run the heats on Sunday. By then he may have already raced the mixed 4x400m, a straight final on the Friday, having run the third leg with the quartet that won bronze medals at the World Relays in the Bahamas last month.

“It was a great way to start the season, to go out there on day one and qualify two teams for the Olympics. Because we had to turn around and get ourselves ready for individual performances, and we’re straight into Rome. It probably hasn’t set in, how big of an achievement it was. But I know myself, come the end of the season or next year, we’re going to look back on that and think, ‘God, that was really, really special”.

“In Rome, there’s no reason why we can’t be coming home with a medal around our necks, and I think that’s where we should be aiming. It’s where we are now.”

Though he hasn’t yet qualified in the 400m hurdles for Paris, he is likely to be there with the mixed relay again too. It doesn’t help that his event has moved on considerably since Rio, Norway’s Karsten Warholm winning the gold medal in Tokyo in 45.94 seconds. But Barr still maintains his best of 47.97 is not yet carved into stone.

“I have my own aspirations, and I’d love in the 400m hurdles to get to a final and be challenging. It is still in the back of my mind that this could be my last season. So there is an element of a good thing coming to an end, but I am also using it as fuel, to do everything I can to be in the best position I can ... go out with a bang kind of thing.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics