Thomas Barr: Competitiors had as much chance of ‘being clean as being unclean’
Silver and bronze medalists represent countries with the worst anti-doping records
Ireland’s Thomas Barr comes home in fourth place as USA’s Kerron Clement takes gold in the men’s 400m hurdles at the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: David Davies/PA
There has already been so much cruel or else unusually ecstatic about these Olympics from an Irish sense and in keeping with that mood Thomas Barr has rolled the perfect mix of emotions into the one race.
So far and yet so bloody close, chasing and kicking and leaning all the way to the line, only to miss out on the bronze medal by 0.05 of a second, while still running the fastest 400 metres hurdles by any Irish man in history.
Barr perfectly captured the mood of these Olympics in the wider sense too, because not long after finishing fourth, he was faced with the inevitable question of doping, just how credible - or otherwise - the performances in his race had been, including his own.
Indeed it wouldn’t have fitted the mood of any result in Rio if there wasn’t some scepticism and a little cynicism too, which is a pity, although unlike many other athletes here, Barr didn’t duck or dive - confronting those that doubted his ability to run 47.97 seconds in a season “riddled” with injury, in his first Olympics, while also suggesting other athletes in his race had as much chance of “being clean as being unclean”.
Whatever about that debate, there was certainly no denying the manner in which the American Kerron Clement won gold, running a season best of 47.73 to improve on the silver medal won in Beijing eight years ago: now 31, Clement is a also two-time World Championship gold medallist and one of the most consistent one-lap hurdlers of the era.
Grabbing silver ahead of Barr was the Kenyan Boniface Tumuti, who ran 47.78, a national record, with Yasmani Copello, the rangy Cuban-born athlete, now representing Turkey, winning bronze in 47.92, also a national record.
Neither Tumuti nor Copello had previously medalled in any major global championships, which is no big deal, but they do represent two countries with the worst anti-doping record in the world, at least behind Russia.
“You can only race what’s on the track,” said Barr. “They’re innocent until proven guilty. There’s as much chance of them being clean as being unclean. At the end of the day, if something comes through, that there is something bad, something going on there with them, well and good. I’ll get upgraded, but at the same time I’m happy enough with a fourth place.
“I just really hope that it’s not going to be a typical kind of, as has happened in a lot of years, someone in the top medals is going to come through, in four years time, is going to turn out there’s been another controversy with drugs.
“I really hope that doesn’t happen. Because that’s a real hollow victory. But that’s the negativity side of things.”
Neither Tumuti nor Copello have come out of nowhere, although in May, Kenya was deemed non-compliant by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), given their near complete lack of out-of-competition testing, and was in danger of being banned from Rio outright, unless they got their house in order.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), however, didn’t take the matter further, although since then, Kenya’s credibility has fallen even further. An athletics manager banned for taking bribes to alert athletes of testing, another coach sent home just prior to the Games for submitting a doping sample on behalf of one of their athletes
Last year, Turkey was rated the second worst country for doping violations by Wada, with 188 violations, including 53 in athletics, after Russia, who had 225, and has been on the Wada watch list for several years now.
Barr then admitted some people would be questioning his own credibility, especially given he came to Rio without breaking 50 seconds this season, and ended up breaking his Irish record for the second time in three days, his 47.97 improving on the 48.39 he ran on Tuesday (his previous record of 48.64 set last summer).
“I know I’m clean. I know the Irish anti-doping system is one of the best in the world. It’s just a pity that it’s really come out in recent years that not every country is like that. And it is very disheartening, because it’s two, a Kenyan and a Turkish guy, that beat me in the final, and they’re countries that have had a lot of controversy over them.
“And I’ve probably been tested 11 of 12 times, and I’ve got my ant-doping friend waiting for me over there, to come through after this. So that will add another one to the list.
“But I often doubt things. I remember last year, going into the World University Championships, Brian Gregan was reading through people’s progression, on one of these websites, and for say 100m, it went 12, 11, 10, nine (seconds), over three years, or over a season, and we were like ‘definitely something going on there...’
“And for the 400m hurdles, he was reading one that went 55 (seconds), 56, 50, then 49, and I was like ‘ah, definitely something going on there...’ And that was my own progression, about five years ago!
“I don’t want to be putting any red flags on myself, but that’s the way it is. There is always going to be doubts in people’s minds over what’s going on. But I know I am clean, anyone who has been with me over the years knows I am clean. I’m not hiding anything. As my sister Jessie says I’m like a freak of nature, this thing just seems to bode well, fresh legs seem to bode well.
“Spark suspicion or not, I went out there and I did what I did today, and I know myself that I’ve done it legitimately.”
In becoming Ireland’s first Olympic sprint event finalist in 84 years, he’d already traced the trail right back to Bob Tisdall, who showed up at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles similarly unheralded, and stunned all the big favourites of the time to win the gold medal.
“If I’d come here like last year (at the World Championships), maybe tipped for a medal, I’d be more disappointed. But I came here as a complete underdog, I’ve come out in fourth, and I’m delighted.
“I knew it would take 47-something to win a medal. It didn’t feel that fast, and there was possibly even more there, if I’d run the perfect race, then there could have been a completely different scenario. I could be waiting to get up on the podium. But it’s been an amazing experience, and I’m going to take so much out of it.”