Saturday, February 11, 2012

Does Eamonn Coghlan Harbor Political Ambitions?

Coghlan Out of the Blocks for a Political Run
by Ian O'Riordan, Irish Times
Saturday, February 11, 2012

PROFILE: EAMONN COGHLAN: THERE WAS a slight, awkward pause. It was Tuesday’s Today with Pat Kenny , and the host had just asked Senator Eamonn Coghlan how he felt about losing the allowance he gets as an Independent as a result of his decision to join Fine Gael.

Kenny’s question only briefly knocked Coghlan off his stride before the former athlete replied confidently. “It’s not about money,” Coghlan told him. “It’s all about passion, belief, about trying to do something for the youth of Ireland, and if my joining the party helps me to implement what I believe in, then I’ll go ahead and do that.”

Coghlan has always prided himself on his athletic spirit rather than on his political toughness. His decision this week to join Fine Gael – it’s said he asked Taoiseach Enda Kenny, but it was more likely the other way around – was greeted with the sort of mild surprise that might follow a false start in the 100 metres. Coghlan compared the move to starting a marathon with little or no training and said it was one race he’d be running with caution.

Whatever about Coghlan’s long-term political ambitions – and they appear to be modest – Coghlan’s taking up the Fine Gael whip is not viewed by the political observers as a hugely significant move. It does help Kenny shore up the numbers in the Seanad (Fine Gael now has 21 of the 60 members), should that be required for any referendum purposes.

Indeed, since being nominated by Kenny as an Independent member of the Seanad, last May, Coghlan hasn’t caused much of a stir in the upper house – except for a bold demonstration last November of how to improve physical fitness for children, his Points for Life programme. If anything, he has stuck conservatively to the issues he knows: health, fitness and sport.

But if Coghlan’s political ambitions eventually mirror the ambition he showed on the running track, then he shouldn’t be underestimated. It took determination to go from youngster in the Dublin suburb of Drimnagh to the top of the world distance-running rankings, during perhaps the golden era of the sport.

He feared no one, an attitude that helped him win the World 5,000 metres in 1983, when he clenched his fists as he passed the Russian Dmitriy Dmitriyev on the final turn.

“There was no stopping me,” he has said of his world indoor mile record of 3:49.78, also from 1983. “I felt like I was running on a cushion of air.” Coghlan was unlucky to finish fourth in the Olympics twice, in 1976 and again in 1980. He was easily good enough to have won two gold medals.

Yet he never settled for second best, thanks in no small part to his three mentors: his father, Bill, and his coaches Gerry Farnan and, later, James “Jumbo” Elliott, at Villanova, in the US. His wife, Yvonne, helped him through some difficult periods, too, as far back as his teenage years, when he wanted to quit his scholarship at Villanova.

His talent flourished on the US indoor circuit, where between 1977 and 1987 he won seven Wanamaker Miles at the historic Millrose Games, earning him the nickname the Chairman of the Boards. He retired after the 1988 Olympics, resigned to the fact that he would never win that elusive Olympic medal, but immediately went about putting something back into the sport he loved – only to find himself burned by the politics of Irish athletics.

In 1989 Irish athletics was riding high on the international successes of Coghlan, John Treacy, Ray Flynn, Frank O’Mara and Marcus O’Sullivan, and against that backdrop Coghlan was persuaded to take on the new full-time role of chief executive of the old Bord Luthchleas na hÉireann (BLÉ), the former governing body of the sport.

He had just returned to Ireland after two decades living in the US, and accepted the job only after some deliberation. He moved into the old BLÉ office, on Prospect Road in Dublin, on January 1st, 1991. He lasted just six months in the job before resigning. “With all the political frustrations and back-stabbing I encountered,” he said, “I knew I hated this side of the sport that I loved so much.”

The only good thing for Coghlan was that he went back to running. Three years later, at the age of 41, he ran an indoor mile in 3:58.15, which remains the only sub-four-minute mile in history posted by a man over the age of 40. (It brought his sub-four total to 83.)

He later took up a position as full-time director of fundraising for Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, in Crumlin, which proved a far better fit, and helped draw him back into athletics, through various fundraising efforts and through coaching work at his club, Metro St Brigid’s, and specifically with his youngest son, John. After retiring from Our Lady’s he joined the board of the Irish Sports Council, and at the age of 59 his enthusiasm for sport is perhaps stronger than ever.

Coghlan’s popularity and personality remain strong since his foray into politics. His affability has already won him admirers around Leinster House, even if it was his friendship with Kenny that brought him there in the first place. Coghlan also admits that in his younger years he quietly admired the then-Fine Gael leader, Garret FitzGerald, and the party’s policies.

One of his first major public appearances as a Fine Gael senator will be to host a fundraising dinner in New York next Wednesday, in support of the Children’s Memorial Research Foundation at Our Lady’s – Kenny will fly to New York for the second time in seven days to attend, as will the US Open golf champion Graeme McDowell.

Coghlan is already in New York for this evening’s 105th Millrose Games, partly to see John run in the college distance medley, with Dublin City University. Two weeks ago John ran in his father’s footsteps by achieving a 3:59.32 mile in Boston – creating the first Irish father-son combination to crack the four-minute barrier.

“When you enter a race,” Coghlan has said, “and there are 15 other guys on the line, you want to come out number one.”

Whether that’s as easily done in politics as on the track, only time will tell.

Curriculum vitae

Who is he? Former World 5,000m champion and indoor-mile record holder; finished fourth in the Olympics twice. Since last May, an Independent senator.

Why is he in the news? His decision to join Fine Gael, which delighted the Taoiseach.

Most appealing characteristic? Affable and enthusiastic, and still looks as if he could run a sub-four-minute mile.

Least appealing characteristic? Trying to please everyone.

Most likely to say? “There is no gain without pain.”

Least likely to say? “If I’d taken EPO, I’d have won two Olympic golds.”

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