Mark English ready to give his all as he rubs shoulders with best in world

UCD runner aiming for semi-final spot in a hugely competitive 800m event

It's a pity that the Christ the Redeemer statue doesn't loom into view from anywhere inside the Olympic Stadium. Still, for Mark English, the image has been already been locked inside his head for the last four years.

After missing out on the London Olympics, by .17 of a second, English returned to his dorm room at UCD and dreamed to himself that come 2016 he would be in Rio. He stuck a picture of Christ the Redeemer on the wall as a source of inspiration, and earlier this week he got to see it for real.

Now English gets to enter the Olympic Stadium for real too – the Donegal man is the first Irish athlete in action on Friday, in the heats of the 800m, as the track and field competition gets underway.

He is drawn in the sixth of seven heats (2.55pm Irish time) and with only the top three sure of making the semi-finals, he’ll need an inspired performance to get through.



Speaking of inspiration, this is the event was the single most impressive race of the London Olympics four years ago, when David Rudisha from Kenya won the gold medal in 1:40.91 – a world record, and still the only time in history any man has run under 1:41.

Behind him, Rudisha left a trail of history too, 18-year-old Nijel Amos from Botswana running a world junior record of 1:41.73 to take second, with every single finisher setting an all-time best mark. Britain’s Andrew Osagie ran a lifetime best of 1:43.77 and finished last.

Four years on, the 800m is once again poised to be the most competitive race inside the Olympic Stadium.

Rudisha is back, looking to become the first man to defend his Olympic 800m title since Peter Snell from New Zealand did it in 1964. So too is Amos, along with the new Kenyan sensation Alfred Kipketer, who still only 19 and who beat Rudisha into third to win Kenya’s Olympic trials last month. The man who finished second in that race, Ferguson Rotich, will be there too.

There’s also Poland’s two-time defending European champion Adam Kszczot, the in-from Frenchman Pierre-Ambroise Bosse, who won two Diamond League races this year, and Taoufik Makhloufi from Algeria, who won the 1,500m in London, and fancies his chances over the two-lap distance this time around.

The list goes on, and on – and oh yeah, only men can make the final.

Eight starters

For English, that final place might seem a long way off at this point, but he certainly has the ability to get out of heat six.

His season best of 1:45.36 ranks fourth of the eight starters, the most obvious threats being Marcin Lewandowski from Poland, who has run 1:44.59 this summer, and also the Canadian Brandon McBride, who has run 1:43.95.

Although still only 23, English has built up considerable experience, winning the bronze medal at the 2014 European Championships in Zurich, and upgrading that to silver at the 2015 European Indoors in Prague.

His tactical awareness rarely lets him down, his intelligence extending beyond racing too, given he’s already over halfway through his medical studies at UCD.

He did postpone his most recent term to ensure he arrived in Rio in the best shape possible, only for injury to put that intention on hold for a while.

In early March, on what should have been a routine training run around UCD, he stepped in a pothole and sustained a stress reaction in his foot, forcing him to wear an immobilising protective boot for six weeks. He was unable to run for almost three months.

It meant a race against time to get back for Rio, and fortunately he managed to win it. He defended his Irish title in Santry in late June, running 1:51.48, his first race back, the reinforced his form by running 1:45.36 in the London Diamond League, just prior to leaving for Rio.

Now working with American coach Steve Magness, his lack of racing may be a worry, but he certainly won’t lack inspiration. There are also qualifying spots for the three fastest losers, across the seven heats, although English won’t want to be left depending on those, and nor should he.

No one can leave anything to chance in the heats of the 800m, not even Rudisha, who goes in the third heat with that personal best of 1:40.91, still knowing he won’t have it all his own way.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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