Tokyo 2020: Masterpiece of an Olympics day had me thinking of Con Houlihan

Olympic Letter from Japan: Running, Con said, would always be the purest of sports

Norway’s Karsten Warholm poses with the scoreboard displaying his new world record after winning the men’s 400m hurdles  in Tokyo. Photograph:   Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

Norway’s Karsten Warholm poses with the scoreboard displaying his new world record after winning the men’s 400m hurdles in Tokyo. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

 

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day. The short walk from inside the Olympic stadium to the exit lighted up at the Main South Gate takes me around 15 minutes, and it’s somewhere around here too where I press play and search Spotify and select Time Out Of Mind.

Believe me, it was another time out of mind and another place late last night when inside the Olympic Stadium, at least from the view exactly where I just sat, we all begged the question . . . where to begin?

Perhaps just as the sun was setting still on this masterpiece of a day.

It’s been 57 years already and thinking too of the day our dad ran the heats of the 5,000m at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo on this very same sacred and hallowed ground.

It wasn’t just about that: I was thinking of Con Houlihan, I was thinking of Con Houlihan...

Because it was out of this world and then some. Never in the 125 years of modern Games history has a so-called morning session produced a performance like this – Karsten Warholm from Norway running a world record of 45.94 seconds to win his first Olympic gold medal on the track.

I am thinking of Con Houlihan.

That being the exact feeling when the clock stopped at 45.94 seconds by Warholm, which by the way was over the 400m hurdles, as in one lap of the track with 10 three-foot barriers standing in his way.

I believe it was the single most extraordinary run ever witnessed inside any Olympic stadium. That time would have won him the 400m at the Olympics without any hurdles up to 1960.

Tokyo 2020

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It completely smashed his own world record of 46.70 that Warholm ran in June, that beating the 29-year-old world record of American Kevin Young and his 46.78 set at the 1992 Olympics on Barcelona.

World record

It was an insane race on so many levels: Rai Benjamin clocked an American record of 46.17, well inside the previous world record, to take silver; Brazil’s Alison Dos Santos takes bronze in 46.72 , which up until a few weeks ago would have been a world record. Running 47.08 for fourth was Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Islands, every place a fastest time for that position in Olympic history.

I was thinking of Con Houlihan.

On the way back to my hotel I stopped off at a newsagents, and just inside the doorway was a pile of newspapers. Every one of them meant nothing and everything to me.

It was Con who first coined that phrase. I missed Italia 90, I was away at the World Cup.

It was Con also who once described the 1985 meeting of England and the Republic of Ireland at Wembley Stadium in London as his first foreign mission for the Evening Press, apart from a national league game between Roscommon and Dublin in Doctor Hyde Park on a wet Sunday the previous November.

Truth is Con also had a soft spot for Roscommon, especially fresh brown trout from the river Suck and the music of Percy French.

One of the last things Houlihan said to me before departing this mortal world was how much he loved the Olympics.

Con often talked about London on those rare and special evenings at what he called his harbour in Portobello. Events invariably began with Con pulling out an old £20 note from under the telephone next to his soft white chair and politely insisting I go around the corner to Spar and purchase two bottles of Yellow Tail, describing it as “easily drinkable”, which, believe me, it most certainly is.

A few tales

Con loved the Olympics: He came directly to mind walking into the Tokyo Olympic stadium earlier on Tuesday, in the calm wonder of where the years had gone. It was here, exactly nine years ago, on the opening morning of the athletics competition at the 2012 London Olympics, that we heard the news. Oh boy.

The last time we had spoken Con was recounting a few tales of his own Olympic experiences, including Barcelona 1992, when in the sweltering heat and dressed in trademark jumper and anorak, he began walking up Montjuïc to get a closer view of the men’s marathon. “Then I hit the Wall,” he said, “and the Wall never recovered.”

Con’s love of distance running never left him either, even when not everything seemed above board. He had a kinship with the 100m too, although he reckoned the only tactic involved was the same tactic used to run away from a bull.

I remember borrowing that line a couple of nights later when Usain Bolt defended his 2012 Olympic 100m title on this same track.

Running, Con said, despite all the scientific intervention, would always be the purest of sports. Not just for human beings: dogs like to race each other, so do horses. And so, surprisingly, do pigs when they’re very young. And so, of course, do fox cubs.

He also knew well about the use of drugs, and believed athletes would always seek ways to improve performance. Only the scientists and chemists would soon give way to psychologists, and there is nothing the authorities can do about it.

A performance like 45.94 seconds.

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