European Athletics Championships 400m final: August 9th, Berlin Olympiastadion
And in Lane Eight, Thomas Barr!
There are lots of hopeful signs you like to see in an athlete before a major championship final, only for Barr, the smiley happy face is the default setting. Somewhere behind that facade he knew this was a serious race.
A European 400 metres hurdles final where everything could be heard but not seen, the danger coming just soon enough or else just too late, like a piece of glass left there on the beach.
And in a near flat-out lap of the track lined with 10 hurdles, each 3ft high, where anything can and often does go wrong, against seven other runners, six of whom had run faster than him this season - including two of the very best in the business in world champion Karsten Warlhom from Norway and Yasmani Copello from Turkey.
Bang! - and Barr is straight up motoring like a drift racer, holding form and position down the backstretch, perfectly controlled around the crown of the bend, until . . .
Into the homestretch and he’s fourth - again, immediate echoes of the Rio Olympics two years previous, where he ran a lifetime best of 47.97, and still finished 0.05 outside the medals. For a second those of us in the press seats, next to the marble box where Hitler sat in 1936, could not watch. We had the young Frenchman Ludvy Vaillant marginally ahead in the lane just inside Barr.
Achtung, the outside lane! No way was Barr letting his chance slip this time, ducking and diving and then simply reaching out to grab a brilliant bronze medal. Wunderbarr, as they might say in German. Did he ever doubt it?
“No, no, not once,” Barr told us, his utter calmness during the race broken only by his worthy celebratory roar. “Once I got to hurdle eight, and coming into the straight, I knew I had him.”
It was very fast: Warlholm and Copello both went sub-48, the first time in European final history two men did, and Barr needed to run the second-fastest time of his life, 48.31 seconds, to seal bronze. At 26, two years on from Rio, he’d come to Berlin better equipped in other ways too, thanks in no small part to Drew and Hayley Harrison, his husband-and-wife coaching team at his training base in Limerick - vorsprung durch technik, as they say in the German car business.
With that Barr joined that elite list of Irish medal winners at these European championships: Delany, Murphy, Coghlan, O’Sullivan, Carroll, O’Rourke, Heffernan, English and Mageean.
“You can hold it, show it,” said Barr, looking down on his bronze medal the evening after, presented in central Berlin. “You can’t with fourth place.”
By the end of the evening almost every Irish person in Berlin got to hold it too. Wunderbarr!
After a summer where Irish athletes won medals across all championship platforms - Sarah Healy a 800m/1,500m double, Rhasidat Adeleke gold in the 200m, Sophie O’Sullivan silver in the 800m at the European Under-18 championships in Hungary, before at the World Under-20 Championships in Tampere, Sommer Lecky won silver medal in the high jump, and the 4x100m relay squad of Molly Scott, Gina Akpe-Moses, Ciara Neville, Patience Jumbo-Gula and Rhasidat Adeleke won silver as well, the low point is away from the track. Namely the World Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to reinstate Russia, despite their refusal to admit systematic doping.