Friday, August 9, 2013

Coghlan: "Helsinki was my redemption, for sure"

Coghlan always happy to revisit his redemption day in Helsinki

Ian Riordan
Irish Times
August 10, 2013

Coghlan gained redemption in winning the 1983 world championship over 5000 meters

He’s sitting by the pool at a Spanish hotel when he takes the call. Moments later we’re rewinding the clock 30 years to the day Eamonn Coghlan wins the gold medal at the first World Athletics Championships.

“My redemption day,” says Coghlan, and the perfect opening line. Because what started in Helsinki in 1983 wasn’t just some fresh alternative to the Olympics, but the first athletics championships to rise above them, coming as they did bang in the middle of the boycott era.

If it all seems like another time and another place it’s because it was: Bono announced Coghlan’s 5,000 metres victory on stage, midway through U2’s set at their first headline gig in Ireland, the Day At The Races, at the old Phoenix Park racecourse (also featuring Eurythmics, Simple Minds, and The Alarm). That’s how news travelled in 1983. 

There was no prize money in Helsinki, no world record bonuses, and not a single positive doping test: this despite the fact the systematic dopers that were East Germany topped the medal table, winning 10 gold medals, while certain other performances (especially Jarmila Kratochvílová, from the former Czechoslovakia, winning the women’s 400m/800m double) look insanely more improbable now than they did even then.

Household names
Yet, Helsinki also fast-forwarded athletics in the big-time professional era – and created a wealth of household names still familiar to this day: Carl Lewis, Sergei Bubka, Mary Decker, Steve Cram, Grete Waitz, Rob de Castella, Calvin Smith, Edwin Moses, Daley Thompson, Greg Foster, and even Coghlan himself, who at 30 still hadn’t found what he was looking for, despite his already star status amongst the world’s leading distance runners.

Now fast-forward another 30 years, because if Helsinki turned out to be a “who’s who” of the sport, the 14th edition of the World Athletics Championships, starting in Moscow today, is setting up to be a “who’s this?”

The choice of venue hasn’t helped, nor the absence – for the full variety of reasons – of athletes such as David Rudisha, Yohan Blake, Jessica Ennis, Blanka Vlasic, Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, and Oscar Pistorius.

The doping cloud is as thick as ever, although athletics isn’t just struggling for credibility right now: it is struggling for relevance, unlike that second week in August, 30 years ago, when it seemed to be the only sport in the world that mattered.

“Talking with any of my contemporaries at that time, the likes of Steve Ovett, Thomas Wessinghage, Grete Waitz, we were all highly excited by the prospect of a World Championships, and it generated a lot of talk on the circuit,” says Coghlan.

“I think the time had come when the IAAF wanted their own championships, separate from the Olympics. Because there was so much boycotting of the Olympics going on at the time as well. 

“That was never an issue going to Helsinki. It was just going to be an athletics meeting at its very best.
“Helsinki also brought in all the athletics purists, from around the world, who wanted to be there because they are fans of the sport, unlike the Olympics, where crowds are more likely to go just because it’s the Olympics.

“Helsinki was a lovely stadium, and Finland had a great athletics tradition as well. All these factors combined made for great excitement, and I think it still holds up as one of the best track and field meetings ever.”

Still, there was an element of uncertainty, some resistance, and perhaps a little scepticism too (The Irish Times, for example, decided against sending its then athletics correspondent, Peter Byrne, much to his enduring annoyance).

For many years the IAAF had themselves been resistant to a World Athletics Championships. They examined the prospect throughout the 1960s, yet never pursued it, mostly because of their loyalty to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Indeed, the then Rule 13.2 in the IAAF Handbook was seen by some as sacred: “The Olympic Games shall be regarded as the World Championships”.

Then at the 1974 IAAF Congress in Rome, a World Championships sub-committee was formed, which included two future presidents of the IAAF, Adriaan Paulen and Primo Nebiolo. Their case was helped significantly by the Montreal Olympic boycott of 1976: 28 countries refused to attend, mostly African nations, objecting to the IOC’s failure to ban New Zealand after their rugby team toured South African earlier that year.

The Moscow Olympics were coming down the tracks, already threatened by further boycotting (in the end 61 countries stayed away, in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). So, at the 1978 IAAF Congress in Puerto Rico, Paulen and Nebiolo’s proposal was unanimously backed, and the World Athletics Championships were born, to begin in 1983.

The only problem then was finding a suitable host city: the vote was taken in March 1980, when the Moscow boycott was worsening by the day. Determined to avoid any of that, the IAAF voted for Helsinki (which beat Stuttgart 11-6 in the final vote): what swung it in Helsinki’s favour, clearly, was Finland’s political neutrality.

Still uncertainty about participation remained: so the IAAF announced it would pay the travel expenses of all competitors, with Helsinki providing free room and board. It worked. 1,355 athletes travelled, from 153 nations (more than double the 70 nations that contested athletics at the Moscow Olympics, and higher too than the 124 nations that competed in the similarly boycotted LA Olympics the following year, 1984).

On to a good thing
From the moment Grete Waitz strode into the old Olympic Stadium on Sunday, August 7th – winning what was the first women’s marathon at any major championship – Helsinki was on to a good thing.

Blessed with warm Scandinavian sunshine, each of the eight days were spectacular, the Wednesday seeing two world records (Kratochvílová’s 47.99 in the 400m, and Lewis anchoring the Americans to a 37.86 in 4x100m), and a sweet hometown victory for Tiina Lillak in the women’s javelin, beating Britain’s Fatima Whitbread with her last throw.

Coghlan had to navigate heats and semi-finals in the 5,000m, before his final showdown on the last day, Sunday, August 14th.

Ireland sent a team of 11 athletes (the same number, coincidentally, as had gone to Moscow), and although Regina Joyce ran very well to finish seventh in the marathon, Coghlan represented the only chance of a medal.

Having finished fourth in the previous two Olympics he didn’t lack a single ounce of motivation.

Coghlan knew he had the race in hand with 150 to go
In the end it was the perfect crowning moment, Coghlan waiting, then destroying the hapless Soviet runner Dmitriy Dmitriyev, who had broken for glory two and a half laps from home: Coghlan’s ecstatic clenching of the fists (right) as he passed Dmitriyev around the final bend was a simple release of emotion, and misunderstood only by those who had no idea what hardship Coghlan endured in the previous seven years.

 "I never ran for recognition,” he says. “I ran to win races. Of course my previous two Olympics had been a big letdown, to everybody. Helsinki was my chance to make up for that. If people do recognise me now, it’s for being world champion, not for finishing fourth in the Olympics. 

“So Helsinki was my redemption, for sure.”

His big payday too, as it turned: there was no prize money for the gold medal, but Coghlan reckons he made “half a million bucks” on the back of Helsinki, and he wasn’t the only one. With that sort of earning potential came the greater temptation to cheat, and even if no one tested positive in Helsinki, the credibility of several medallists certainly hasn’t survived the 30 years. Finland’s Martti Vainio, for example, who out-dived Dmitriyev for bronze behind Coghlan, was caught doping a year later.

“I don’t remember any testing going on in Helsinki,” says Coghlan. “I’d been tested a few times on the US indoor circuit, but that was about it. There was always talk of athletes being associated with doping, and some, we knew, were at it. It did go on. I just never allowed myself get distracted by it.”

What is certain is Helsinki completely changed the landscape of global athletics. It drew a worldwide TV audience of over one billion, opening a goldmine for the IAAF, and after an equally successful championships in Rome in 1987, by the time of the third World Championships, in Tokyo in 1991, the IAAF had already agreed to stage them every two years, instead of once in every four.

They introduced prize money, in Athens in 1997, although too late for Sonia O’Sullivan – who finally matched Coghlan’s feat by winning 5,000m gold in Gothenburg in 1995 (and winning a Mercedes-Benz by way of some further reward).

“Going every two years was mainly commercial, but I think has been a good thing for the sport,” says Coghlan. “Trying to get everything right for the Olympics once every four year is very, very tough, believe me. So that was just as tough for the World Championships.

“The problem is I just don’t think the personalities are there anymore, like they were 30 years ago. The public will look at Moscow next week, know Usain Bolt, and maybe Mo Farah, and that’s about it.
“And RTÉ, our national broadcaster, not covering these championships anymore is a bit pathetic, to be honest. Of course the doping doesn’t help, and it disgusts me now to hear athletes talk about being clean, then end up getting caught with something.

“The whole thing to me has gone a bit hypocritical. But I’ll still be watching, glued to every race in Moscow. And I think all true fans of the sport will be too.”

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