THE late ’70s and early ’80s was a golden era for Irish middle distance runners, milers in particular.
Ray Flynn from Longford set the current Irish mile record of 3.49:77 at the Bislett Games in Oslo in July 1982. He teamed up with Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara and Eamonn Coughlan at Bellfield in Dublin in August 1985 to set a world record of 15.49:08 for a 4 X 1 mile relay – a record that still stands.
Indoor running is almost a sport in itself. It has a 200m track as opposed to 400m outdoors, which creates an entirely different running style. Irish middle distance runners were the stars of the early years of the World Championships. The first of those were held in Indianapolis in 1987 and Frank O’Mara won double gold in both the 1,500m and 3,000m. He won another 3,000m gold in 1991, while in between Marcus O’Sullivan claimed the same title. In spite of those achievements by others, Coughlan was the king of the Irish milers of that era.
Born in Drimnagh in Dublin, Coughlan was first coached by his father, Bill, and later joined Metropolitan Harriers, where he was coached by Gerry Farnan. He won All-Ireland Colleges titles at 1,500m and 5,000m in 1971 and was offered a scholarship to Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Under Jumbo Elliott, he won numerous American college titles and within one week in 1975, ran his first sub four-minute mile and then set a European record of 3.53:3.
It was as an indoor runner that he achieved his greatest fame and earned the nickname ‘Chairman of the Boards’. Between 1974 and 1987, he won 52 indoor 1,500m and 1 mile races. He won the world-famous Wannamaker Mile at Madison Square Gardens a record seven times. He set a world record of 3.52:6 for the indoor mile in 1979 and then in 1983, became the first man ever to run a mile in under three minutes and 50 seconds indoors. His record lasted for 14 years, until it was beaten by the great Moroccan, El Guerrouj.
His time of 3.48:45 wasn’t just an indoor record – it bettered Steve Scott’s American outdoor record. It was the fastest mile ever ran on American soil and remained so until 2007. He still remains one of only five or six athletes to run under 3.50 on American soil. All told, he ran 83 sub four minute miles and in 1994, became the first man over 40 to do so.
His indoor achievements did not unfortunately translate outdoors. As is typical in this country, many remember him for what he did not win, rather than what he did. Twice he finished in the most unfortunate place for any sportsman – fourth in an Olympic final, in 1976 behind John Walker in the 1,500m in Montreal and in 1980 behind Miruts Yifter in the 5,000m in Moscow.
He finally struck outdoor gold in the first World Track and Field Championships in 1983. Who can blame him for raising his fist as he cruised past the Russian Dmitriyev, on the final bend to win the 5,000m. Dmitriyev finished fourth.
Eamonn Coughlan won his 5,000m gold medal in Helsinki on August 14, 1983 – 30 years ago this week.