Subscriber OnlySport

Tokyo 2020: Mixed emotions in the mixed zone as Irish athletes’ race is run

Ciara Mageean, Thomas Barr and Mark English bowed out with no excuses

The mixed zone in the Olympic Stadium where we talk to the athletes after their event is spread out behind a line of crash barriers and sectioned off into several pens. It’s within sight and earshot of the finish line, each athlete first walking up and down the ramp of TV interview crews before getting one last chance to gather their thoughts.

It’s not like previous Olympics where we could hurry up to them unannounced. The pens are sectioned off according to different events, we are given a ticket in as numbers are restricted, and when the athlete arrives we place our recording devices onto a tray which is then placed in front of them.

It makes for a sterile air – and in more ways than one. Who would fancy being confronted by a small group of masked journalists with invariably one question on their mind: so what happened out there?

By all laws of Olympic averages more athletes will fail than succeed – in their own minds at least. Such is the nature of these things. There will always be some reason for not succeeding, and the last thing most athletes want is to make it sound like an excuse for failing. It is hot, but... There were nerves, except... I’m proud to be here, if only...



Ask me to list off in no strict order or preference three of the finest Irish athletes across all events in Tokyo and Ciara Mageean, Thomas Barr and Mark English would be close at the top. All in their prime, they all came to Tokyo in or right around the form of their life.

I'm not one for making excuses, I didn't have an ideal week last week. I had a rocky week, last week, to say the least

Mageean ran 4:02.48 in Monaco a fortnight before Tokyo, not far off her 1,500m best of 4:00.15, and, after making the final of the World Championships in Doha in 2019, had genuine ambitions of doing likewise here.

Barr ran the third-fastest time of his life weeks before Tokyo, and even if the men’s 400m hurdles is going through a revolution, the world record broken this summer after standing since 1992, he was a potential finalist too.

English broke another long-standing record in June when he eclipsed the Irish record which had stood since 1995; even with the typically ruthless qualifying rounds of the 800, the least he expected was to get out of his heat.

So, what happened out there?

On paper Mageean had a relatively straightforward draw for her heats of the 1,500m here on Monday; with six to progress, plus six more fastest losers from the three, something had to go seriously wrong for her not to make the semi-finals.


Mageean did put herself to the front early on, before drifting right back over the last lap. She finished 10th, looked up at the stadium screen which revealed her time of 4:07.29, and clasped her face in her hands with a look of sheer anguish. In that mixed zone afterwards one of the first things Mageean said was she didn’t want to make any excuses, but maybe there was a reason: she sustained a tear in her calf muscle last Sunday week, during one of her final track sessions.

“I’ve proven I’m a world-class 1,500m runner and that wasn’t to the level I know I am. I’m not one for making excuses, I didn’t have an ideal week last week. I had a rocky week, last week, to say the least.

“My last session leading into it, I hurt myself, something happened, I tore my calf, and I didn’t get to run Monday to Friday, I ran Saturday and Sunday. It was a small thing, normally two weeks and it’d be grand, but I had a week until the Olympic Games. I took it in my stride at the start but as the week went on I got a little anxious... I can block that [discomfort] out, it wasn’t that in the race, but it was probably the effect of the week.”

It's just a body – the body didn't follow through where the mind was ready to go. That's sport

Only Barr got himself into a semi-final, where he fell just one place short of going into the final eight of what might prove the most competitive 400m hurdles in Olympic history, especially given Karston Warholm may need to improve on his world record just to win.


Barr might have had himself a good excuse too, given he clipped badly the fourth-last hurdle, almost falling over, only to still run the second-fastest time of his life, 48.26 seconds (which would have won the third semi-final).

Instead, Barr made it clear that hitting that hurdle wasn’t any excuse, only a good reason to keep going. “I always know I’m mentally in good shape because something like that won’t throw me off. I will dig in. Someone could throw a brick at me from the stands and I will still go. Someone could fall in front of [me]. I just focus on what’s in front of [me]. If I wasn’t mentally strong I might have shut it. It’s just a body – the body didn’t follow through where the mind was ready to go. That’s sport.”

English exited his 800m heat on Saturday blaming nothing or no one but himself. “I know I had the quality to make it. It’s a different thing when you go into a championship and you know you’re not in shape and you crash out.”

Each with their own reason, careful not to make it sound like an excuse, but sometimes the mixed zone in the Olympic Stadium is not the best place to tell the difference.