James McIlroy, the Irish runner who turned to British athletics and is now celebrating both
‘I honestly think we have the best British and Irish half marathon ever’
James McIlroy runs for Ireland in the heats of the men’s 800m during the 1998 European Championships in the Nepstadion, Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Michael Cooper/Allsport
We were trying to work out the last time we spoke and reckoned it was somewhere after the 1998 European Championships in Budapest. Back then James McIlroy was 21-years-old, had just finished an incredibly close fourth in the 800m final, .23 of a second away from bronze, and already dubbed “the future of Irish middle distance running”.
I know that because I was doing some of the dubbing. McIlroy had produced one of the most impressive senior debut seasons in Irish athletics history, taking his 800m best from 1:59.50 to 1:45.32 – an unheard of 14 second improvement – in the space of 13 months. He also ran a sub-four minute mile and won the Irish senior 1,500m title, both at his first attempts, winning many admirers in the process.
He was also confident and chirpy and popular among his fellow Irish athletes, not least at Ballymena and Antrim AC, who had helped nurture his swift rise. As a native of Larne, McIlroy could also represent Northern Ireland in events such as the Commonwealth Games, and his future was dressed in green and looking bright in equal measure.
Until a year later, when injury and over-training meant he missed the 1999 World Championships in Seville, during which McIlroy submitted his transfer of allegiance from Athletics Ireland to British Athletics. Just like that he was gone, winning the first of five British 800m titles in 2000, making their team for Sydney, very nearly making the Olympic final and this time dividing many admirers, North and South of the old borderline. It is one thing to walk out on the Irish athletics set up, something else to walk into the British one. Or is it?
When we spoke again this week, McIlroy was out on the roads around Larne making some final adjustments to the course for next Saturday’s Antrim Coast Half Marathon, which is fast becoming a celebration of the best of British and Irish distance running, exactly as now intended. Originally meant to be a mass-participation race last March, Covid-19 means it’s become elite only, and tasked with making as elite as possible, McIlroy has found old loyalties entirely undivided, including the likes of Mo Farah.
“It’s really the other side of the fence for me, as a race organiser, but I honestly think we have the best British and Irish half marathon ever,” McIlroy told me. “Nearly all the top runners will be here on September 12th, around 15 Olympians, from five different Olympics, and after all that’s gone on around Covid-19, it’s about doing something for the community, and we’ve had great support from the local council, from Northern Ireland athletes, from Irish athletics, English athletics, they’ve all bought in.”
It will be fast and scenic, this also being Game of Thrones country, and although still based in England, where he works full-time with Adidas UK, being back around his Larne Athletic Club in recent weeks has also afforded McIlroy the chance to reflect on his own running career – and he is still nothing but diplomatic about that transfer of allegiance.
“I’ve always said it was never a political decision, but you could say it was a sporting decision. In some ways I always felt British, and always felt Irish too. And even after I transferred across, I remained close to a lot of Irish athletes, the likes of James Nolan, Gareth Turnbull, always felt I’d more in common with the Northern Ireland and southern Ireland athletes, that never changed.
“It was about trying to make the best of my career, and it wasn’t an easy decision. Remember, things weren’t going well for me at the time. I’d exploded on the scene, then over-trained, found myself under a bit of pressure, but there was no fall out, or anything like that. I know some people dumped the political element on top of it, but that’s a sort of a parochial argument anyway, when it’s really all about trying to do your best on the world stage.
“And I felt no resentment either. I know maybe a few people were disappointed, but it didn’t really change a lot for me. I know that may not be the answer some people want to hear, but I still raced and trained with the same guys, Irish and British, still have good relationships with them all.”
He’s sure too that winning a medal in Budapest that summer of 1998 wouldn’t have changed anything: in a crazy fast final that saw Wilson Kipketer take off and then die, McIlroy was fast closing in on bronze, finishing fourth in 1:45.46, with victory going to Nils Schumann from Germany in 1:44.89. Two years later, on that crazy Monday night at the Sydney Olympics where Sonia O’Sullivan won her 5,000m silver medal, McIlroy was just run out of an 800m final that was later won by Schumann; he was in the best possible company in Budapest too.
“I just remember being thrilled at getting that far. I didn’t quite have the speed. I would have loved to have won a medal for Ireland, but it certainly had no bearing on the decision to change across. I still think back on Budapest as one of my favourite ever championships, even more than the Olympics.
“After that I was coached by Alan Storey, who also coached Sonia O’Sullivan, and would have trained with her quite a bit after crossing over too. And I can tell you right now, Sonia was some runner.”
By the time of his retirement, in 2010, McIlroy had improved his 800m best to 1:44.65, in 2005, marginally faster than the Irish record of 1:44.82, set by David Matthews in 1995. “And my 2:15.57, for 1,000m, I’m probably even more proud of that. But I’d have liked a 1:43, to be honest. You know what it’s like. I still consider myself the fastest from the island of Ireland, but those are the rules, I completely understand. And I know that’s the diplomatic answer too. But I think looking back, if you had a 13-year career, you’ve done pretty good.”
The fact Farah’s career is still going strong, the four-time Olympic champion looking to break his own British half-marathon record in Larne, is also addressed in suitably diplomatic terms: “When I first transferred from Ireland, moved over to St Mary’s in London, we actually arrived on the very same day, in 2001. We’ve been good friends since, would share rooms, train together, right up to 2010. I’m asked a lot, if someone said to me then that Mo would become one of the best of all-time, I’d have said no. But did I think he had the capacity to do that? I definitely did. He’s very, very talented, kept taking steps on the ladder, and just started doing everything right.
“And I’d love to get say Ireland versus America, make that an Ireland team from North and South. That’s the direction we’d like to go for next year with this race. This year we just want to see a string of fast times, no matter what country. I know sometimes people do like to go the other way, and create that divide, but this is bringing all the home nations together.”
All spoken perfectly diplomatically and in the true interest of Irish and British athletics.