Grateful dead: how the lockdown resurrected an Irish Olympic runner

2012 Olympian Ciarán Ó Lionáird has come out of retirement and set eyes on Tokyo Games

Ciarán Ó Lionáird  will be 33 by the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around next summer, assuming they still do, certainly not old by 1,500m standards

Ciarán Ó Lionáird will be 33 by the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around next summer, assuming they still do, certainly not old by 1,500m standards

 

One winter day in 1883, aboard a steamer that was returning him from Marseilles to the Arabian port city of Aden, a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey struck up a conversation with a countryman he’d met on board, a young journalist named Paul Bourde.

As Bardey chatted about his trading operation, he happened to mention the name of one of his employees – a “tall, pleasant young man who speaks little”, as he later described him. To his surprise, Bourde reacted to the name with amazement, in part because like many Frenchmen who kept up with contemporary literature, he had assumed that the young man was dead. His name was Arthur Rimbaud.

Today, many think of Rimbaud as a founder of modern European poetry, and in 1883 there was good reason why some presumed him dead: all his significant works were composed between 1870, when he was not quite 16, and 1874, when he turned 20, before he completely abandoned literature in favour of a vagabond life that eventually took him to Aden and then to East Africa, where he remained until just before his death, in 1891, trading coffee, feathers, and, finally, guns, making a tidy bundle in the process.

Dead

I found that intro one summer day this week in a 5,000-word story on Rimbaud while clearing out old issues of The New Yorker, the American weekly magazine, which have been piling up on one side of the garage wall since around the turn of the last century. Maybe only to my own amazement, it reminded me of the story of the Irish runner whose career was also assumed by many, including him, to be dead. His name is Ciarán Ó Lionáird.

Because of all the stories of elite athletes coming out of the lockdown – some worried the time away will shorten their career, others convinced it will lengthen it – perhaps only Ó Lionáird’s stands alone. Jonathan Sexton may have added a few inches to his biceps, the Dublin footballers may now get the chance to go for the six-in-a-row six days before Christmas, but Ó Lionáird has used the past three months to turn back the clock a full four years, come fresh out of retirement, and with that set renewed Olympic aspirations. Now read on.

It is nine years now since Ó Lionáird paid €5 for a train from Leuven to Oordegem, in Belgium, his base that summer, for one last race over 1,500m. Instead, having started the season with a best of 3:48.36, he ran 3:34.46 (a 3:51.5 mile, in old money) and with that moved himself up to fourth on the Irish all-time list, and qualified for both the 2011 World Championships in Daegu and the 2012 London Olympics. One small step for Irish distance running, one giant leap for the young man from Toonsbridge, outside Macroom.

With that began bigger aspirations, and at times Ó Lionáird struggled to meet them, not helped by a series of crippling Achilles’ tendon injuries. He backed up his 3:34.46 with a 10th place finish at those World Championships, and after that briefly trained with the controversial Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project, based in Portland, Oregon, before soon switching instead to the Nike Track Club Elite, a sort of alternative training camp about 210km away, in Eugene, to train under Britain’s Mark Rowland.

By the time of the London Olympics, however, he was already running off track: “This has been the worst experience of my life, there’s no positives I can take from this,” he said live on RTÉ, after finishing down the field in his 1,500m heat. “I’m going to find something else to do with my life.”

Still his career wasn’t yet presumed dead in the Rimbaud sense, and in March of 2013, his Achilles injury still nagging quietly at him, Ó Lionáird went to the European Indoors in Gothenburg and won the bronze medal in the 3,000m, having boldly struck for gold. After another half-comeback in 2014, another mostly crippling 2015, he retired before the Rio Olympics in 2016, at age 28, utterly convinced his running career was done, finished, dead.

Indeed over those last four years, by his own gentle admission, he “half-treated my body to death”, not quite in the Rimbaud vagabond sense, but some evidence of which came when he appeared at Burning Man, the slightly bizarre Nevada desert festival, in 2017, and decided to run a short leg of the 50km Burning Man ultra-marathon. “Are you Ciarán Ó Lionáird?” asked one fellow runner, when recognising the 2012 Olympian. “What the f*** are you doing here?”

Although he continued to work as a shoe adviser for Nike, Ó Lionáird never once considered resurrecting his running career, his only interest coming into this year being to increase some awareness around that difficult transition period to the post-running career, which he was still experiencing himself. He was toying with the idea of writing a book about his experiences, which was actually the subject matter the last time we spoke.

More chapters

That was until the lockdown began, when rather than remain holed up in Eugene, he made the instant karma decision to move to the freedom of Flagstaff, Arizona, joining the training group of old friend Stephen Haas, and where since April 1st he’s been slowly and surely restoring his Olympic conditioning and ambition. This was also the week after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, adding to his slowly and the suddenly grateful sense his career may not be quite dead yet, and there may be a few more chapters to that book.

Whatever about the destination, he has taken to social media to chart the journey and because he’s also rejoined the Sport Ireland testing pool he can’t compete until October: so this week Ó Lionáird produced a mock poster, with his artist friend Erica Thompson, mimicking the old Stanley Mouse psychedelic artwork which became the trademark design for the Grateful Dead.

Ciarán Ó Lionáird’s comeback poster, which he revealed this week. Photograph: Erica Thompson
Ciarán Ó Lionáird’s comeback poster, which he revealed this week. Photograph: Erica Thompson

With a perhaps suitably skeletal Ó Lionáird crossing a finishing line, marked “not done yet”, the Japan flag in the background, it reads: Comeback Tour, Road to Tokyo, April 2020, Flagstaff – More Dates TBA.

He’ll be 33 by the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around next summer, assuming they still do, certainly not old by 1,500m standards, but after four years in retirement, and nine years since London, it would be a first in Irish Olympic history. For a running career once considered dead, for now he’s just grateful for the chance to say it’s not. His name is Ciarán Ó Lionáird.

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