Thomas Barr’s storming finish comes up agonisingly short in Rio

Irish hurdler smashes Irish record for second time in three days as he finishes fourth

Holy Edwin Moses!

That was bloody close – Thomas Barr coming within a whisker of winning an Olympic medal in the 400 metres hurdles, finishing fourth in another smashing national record of 47.97 seconds.

Rarely has a 400m hurdles final flown by so fast, while feeling like it lasted for forever: that’s what happens when an Irish athlete is in the hunt for an Olympic medal.

In the end the finish line came a little too soon, Barr closing fast but not quite fast enough to get himself into the medals – the American Kerron Clement of the USA, who ran a season’s best of 47.73.


Grabbing silver ahead of Barr was the Kenyan Boniface Tumuti, the African champion, who ran 47.78, also a national record, with Yasmani Copello, the rangy Cuban-born athlete, now representing Turkey winning bronze in 47.92, also a national record.

Then came Barr, his 47.97 just .05 off bronze. It was that close, in an event where so much can go wrong. His time would have won bronze in London and silver at each of the previous to Olympics.

There was drama from the gun – the first time: Javier Culson from Puerto Rico, who had run 47.72, in lane three, just inside Barr, false-started and with that immediate disqualification. It was Culson that had won bronze in London four years ago.

Still, Barr’s famously relaxed and fiercely competitive approach didn’t let him down, as he ran the near perfect race, perfectly paced, perfectly judging each hurdle. It just wasn’t quite enough to close down on the top three as he came off the final bend.

Clement had declared himself “bleeding for gold”, and produced his best race in years, twice World Champion and silver medallist from Beijing 2008.

Yet everything about the way Barr won his semi-final on Tuesday night suggested he was capable of winning a medal, and he certainly gave himself every chance, running the race of his life, breaking through the 48-second barrier, smashing his Irish record of 48.39 set in that semi-final.

In becoming Ireland’s Olympic sprint event finalist in 84 years, he’d already traced the trial right back to Bob Tisdall, who showed up at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles similarly unheralded, and of course stunned all the big favourites of the time win the gold medal.

“Anything can happen in the final, anything,” Barr had said, emphasising the ‘anything’ for good reason: the only pity is he couldn’t get himself into the medal.

Every athlete aspires towards the perfect race, preferably in an Olympic final, and Barr certainly came close.

He’d hoped to enter one of the most elite clubs of Irish sport, Ireland boasting only seven previous athletics medallists in the 120 years of Olympic history: four gold, two silver, and one bronze.

Dr Pat O’Callaghan won the hammer in 1928 and 1932, Bob Tisdall won gold in the hurdles in 1932, Ronnie Delany won gold in 1,500m in 1956.

Then, 28 years after that, John Treacy won silver in the marathon in 1984, before Sonia O’Sullivan won Olympic silver in 5,000m in 2000, Rob Heffernan then upgraded to bronze in the 50km walk in London years ago.

Instead, Barr joins the lonely club that includes Eamonn Coghlan who finished fourth twice, in 1976 an 1980, over 1,500m and 5,000m.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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