In any ordinary Olympic year the national track and field championships would present the perfect opportunity to sign-off on pending qualification, only such is the tricky situation and perhaps confusion around Tokyo that for Mark English they present a clear and present danger.
Just when it seemed English was safely inside the quota of 48 entries for the men’s 800 metres (based on qualifying time or ranking points), he now sits in 47th position: English was poised to win back his national title in Santry this weekend (Athletics Ireland refused his entry last year because of their Covid-19 restrictions), but will race in Germany on Sunday instead, possibly again in Barcelona on Tuesday.
Here’s the deal: the cut-off for track and field qualification for Tokyo is midnight on Tuesday, and even if English did gain a few more ranking points by winning the national title, there’s no guarantee he’d hold on to his qualifying spot. So he’s going after that automatic qualifying time of 1:45.20 instead, and wisely so.
Last Tuesday night, for the third time in 10 days, English produced another world-class performance, winning the 800m at the Karlstad Grand Prix in Sweden, the latest stop on the World Athletics Continental Tour. The Nordic conditions on this occasion weren’t favourable for quality times, still English took the win in 1:46.50. This follows his 1:45.22 clocking when finishing a close second at the Madrid stop on the Continental Tour just last Saturday, that time just .02 of a second off the automatic qualifying time, his fastest time anywhere since 2014, and fifth fastest of all time.
These latest series of times, including the 1:45.70 he clocked in Sweden last Sunday week, had put the Finn Valley AC runner well inside the Olympic qualifying quota with a few places to spare. Then this week World Athletics added another four “universality spots”, which are effectively wild-card entries from smaller nations who have no chance of qualifying otherwise.
With that English dropped to 47th, hence his need to chase the 1:45.20 at Sunday’s True Athletes Classic meeting in Leverkusen. If he doesn’t hit it there he’ll try again for the last time at Tuesday’s Barcelona Continental Tour meeting, the 28 year-old qualified doctor increasingly determined to better his Olympic experience of Rio in 2016.
His coach Feidhlim Kelly at the Dublin Track Club (DTC) both backs and believes in this decision, reckons English can come close to his own lifetime best of 1:44.84, set back in 2013, or indeed better the long-standing Irish record of 1:44.82, set by David Matthews back in 1995.
However, Kelly questions the sense of suddenly adding four universality spots: “Mark has been fighting tooth and nail for his spot over the last two, three years,” he says. “All top elite athletes are used to being on the knife-edge like this, and of course it’s never going to be easy to qualify for the Olympics no matter how good you are.
“But in any Olympic year it’s about putting your best foot forward, and Mark has definitely being doing that. Then all of a sudden they drop in another four athletes, a week before the cut-off. It would be like qualifying for Euro 2020, then suddenly you’re bunked out, and they say sorry, we have to give a spot to San Marino. We’ve been trying to do it the right way, so I think they do need to rethink the qualify quota a little, because this to me is a red card.”
Plenty other Tokyo contenders will still compete in Santry at what is the 149th consecutive running of the National Championships, this year spread over Friday, Saturday and Sunday in four sessions.
Thomas Barr (400m hurdles) and Ciara Mageean (1,500m) already have automatic qualifying times, while Andrew Coscoran and Sarah Healy (both 1,500m), Sarah Lavin (100m hurdles), Nadia Power and Síofra Cléirigh Büttner (both 800m) are more hopeful that ranking points gained by winning a national title will be enough to safely secure their ticket to Tokyo. Defending 1,500m champion Paul Robinson is out through injury, with Friday evening's opening session comprising mainly of heats.