"The race went perfect for me, I was always where I wanted to be, and even at the bell I thought that I was going to win. My strongest point as a runner is usually my ability to kick at the end of a race, but in the last lap of the 5,000 metres I just dragged. I gave it everything but I had nothing left… I guess I just wasn't destined to win."
Eamon Coghlan's first observation about the disappointment of the 5,000 metres fourth in Moscow is that he offers no excuses whatsoever. There are excuses, ready and usable if he so chose, but he does not. In the twenty four hours prior to the race Coghlan suffered from stomach cramps and attacks of diarrhoea and even experienced the last attack on Friday afternoon, less that five hours before his race. Even though the Irish team doctor, Dr. O'Brien told him that anyone with such a bug so soon before a race could not be 100 per cent in the race, Coghlan refuses to attribute his defeat to the stomach complaint. Rather he felt the cramps were simply a sign of pre-race nervous tension. "If the gastro enteritis or whatever it was had been affecting me I would have felt it immediately in the race. But throughout the first eight laps I felt perfect."
Throughout the last seven weeks Coghlan has been suffering from pain in his left hip and his left calf muscle. It's an aching pain which the doctors and physiotherapists are unable to pinpoint and which acupuncture, massage and ultrasonic ray treatment have been unable to relieve. But Coghlan feels this did not effect his performance. Likewise he rejects any suggestion that the conditions were less than ideal. Run as it was on a warm evening of low humidity the race should have been perfect for middle distance running.
Coghlan's defeat was a shattering conclusion to a four-year long preparation, for it was in Montreal in 1976 after that 1500 defeat that Coghlan decided to aim for the 5000 metres at Moscow. If, in the meantime, that has not always been apparent, well then there have been good reasons for the mystery surrounding his Moscow target. "In the run up to the Moscow games I wanted above all to maintain a low profi1e, I wanted to avoid as much as possible any form of media blow up. Also with regard to the other athletes it was good to keep people guessing. Mystery is power and by keeping my opponents unaware of my exact intentions I hoped that I would arrive in Moscow as an outsider for the 5,000 metres. But of course after the heats and semi-finals, I ended up one of the favourites. I mean that before the race the Ethiopians were more worried about me than I was about them."
In the four years since Montreal his training has aimed at adding stamina and strength to the undoubted pace and kick of one of the world's fastest milers. He now feels certain that the preparation was as right as it could be. The last eleven months in particular have been carefully organised to hit a Moscow August 1st peak. In September of last year he moved into the final phase of that preparation. Throughout the period of September, October and November he concentrated on distance running, doing 20 mile runs over the rolling hills of the Phoenix Park. By November and December he had added to his schedule the gruelling routing of 20 x 1/4 mile or 10 x 3/4 mile splits. The next element in the programme which he and his coach Gerry Farnon had devised was to spend two months on the American in-door track circuit. The urgency of competitive running would add pace to his programme and generally keep him sharp. His indoor season was by anyone's standards very successful. He won seven out of his eight major races and did the very fast indoor miles times of 3.52 and 3.53 beating in the process men like Steve Scott and Filbert Bayi.
At this juncture both Coghlan and Farnon felt everything was proceeding perfectly. By March he had returned to Ireland and settled into the final and most demanding part of his training schedule. Throughout March, April, May and June his weekly schedule was as follows:
Mon: 5 mile run in the morning. 12 Mile run in the afternoon.
Tue: 5 mile run in the morning. 20 x 400m in the afternoon (for the uninitiated this particular form of track training obliges the athlete to run 400 metres flat out, then jog for 200 metres to recover and then run the next 400 metres flat out again and so on until he has done 20 such 400 metres. Coghlan brought down his time for the 400 metres from 64 seconds to 59 seconds with a 60 seconds recovery period. (Impressive and exhausting training for any athlete).
Wed: 5 mile run in the morning. 4 x 2 miles in the Phoenix Park in the afternoon.
Thurs: 5 mile run in the morning. 12 mile run in the afternoon.
Fri: 5 mile run in the afternoon.
Sat: 5 mile run in the morning. 16 mile run in the afternoon.
Sun: 5 mile run in the morning. 8 x 3/4 miles in the afternoon.
In his 4 x 2 mile runs through the Park Coghlan tried to prepare for every race track eventuality by changes of pace rather in the Ethiopian style. After three quarters of a mile he would up the pace appreciably for 600 metres and then do the same after a mile and a half, always being sure to end the run with some sort of kick over the last 200 metres. The Coghlan programme was completed by flexibility exercises in the evening and by thrice weekly massages. The massage, he feels, is essential to relieve and take the tension out of muscles that are doing so much work. It was after all a programme which sent the athlete to bed tired and weary every night at 10 o'clock.
A planned element in the final pre-Moscow period was to run relatively few races. A 5000 metre win in Switzerland, a Cork City Sports mile win over Thomas Wessinghagge, his 800 metre and 1500 metre wins in the BLE championships and his 3,000 metre win in Norway were his only races in the months of June and July. It was part of Coghlan's policy of keeping a low profile.
Apart from a minor gall bladder inflamation the only problem that occurred in the final days was his left leg pain. It is possible that this trouble was caused by the heavy training schedule that he had taken on himself, but for the moment no one knows for certain. The symptoms of the trouble are that he feels pain when he puts all his weight on his left leg and pivots up and down on his left foot. Likewise it hurts to stretch the leg in various exercises. "The leg was sore in running, but I was always able to train through the ache and it definitely did not interfere with my preparation. However, it was a nagging nuisance."
A week before coming to Moscow and two weeks before the 5,000 metres final the training programme was complete. Coghlan pronounced himself delighted with the way everything had gone. He felt good and was confident that he could win the 5,000. An athlete of his experience is not given to false confidence and it was on a realistic basis that he felt before Moscow (and still feels now) that he was the best 5,000 metres man in the field. In the final pre-Moscow week he "tapered down", or relaxed letting the energy flow back into his heavily worked body until, as he put it, "you get to the point where some sort of savageness is ready to explode from within you. You are mad to get out on the track and run".
Coghlan came out to Moscow on the Saturday at the end of the first week of the Olympics. Again this was part of his pre-race planning. By coming out just before his heat he avoided a week of boredom, anxiety and perhaps even sickness in the Olympic village. (Some of the Irish team had indeed suffered stomach upsets in that first week). Not having had a competitive race for nearly a month, Coghlan was expecting his Monday heat to be tough. The disturbing experience of John Treacy in the 10,000 metres heat had also prepared him for the unexpected. In the end, although he qualified easily for the semi-final, he found the race hard but felt that it would put him just right for the semi-final and final. It had been another of his long-term objectives to avoid a repetition of his Montreal experience where prior to the disappointment of the 1500 metre final, he had won both his heat and semi-final. This time he would expend the minimum of energy on making it to the final. Thus, in both his heat and the semi-final he concentrated on qualifying with the minimum of fuss.
Having cruised home in his semi-final to be second to Kedii, Coghlan's confidence was high. The Monday heat had indeed put him just right and he was never even remotely stressed in the semi-final. Incredibly, everything seemed to be going to plan. From the Montreal decision of four years ago to the semi-final the plan had gone remarkably smoothly. He felt that he had done everything he needed to do and that he was now ready to win the gold.
Although there was always Nyambui of Tanzania, Vainio of Finland and maybe one of the other two Ethiopians to be feared, there was little doubt in all minds that the man to beat in the 5,000 metres was the enigmatic little Ethiopian Miruts Yifter. Quiet and reserved Yifter is not very much in attendance on the international circuit and Coghlan had never previously run against him. At the age of 38 (he may be even older) Yifter seems to be running better than ever. As he had demonstrated clearly in winning the 10,000 metres gold medal Yifter's most deadly talent is his disconcerting ability to viciously fluctuate and change the pace in the distance races.
By throwing in a fast lap the Ethiopian can upset his opponent's rhythm and concentration. He is such a natural athlete that it seems to cost him nothing in energy to constantly move from off the pace at the back of the field to making the pace at the head of the field. In the 10,000 metre final, Yifter, aided by his teammates Keidir and Mohammed had used such tactics to defeat the great Finn, Lasse Viren. At no time in the 26 laps of the 10,000 metres did the Ethiopians allow the race to settle into a particular pace or pattern. Their chopping and changing tactics forced Viren to go up and take the running with them to try to establish some sort of pattern. The effort cost Viren a medal in the race he has won in the last two Olympics.
The extraordinary tactical running of the Ethiopians had, as it was intended to do, made the gold for Yifter. The self-denial of Kedir and Mohammed on behalf of their captain Yifter and above all the power with which Yifter himself finished, had made it an awesome piece of running.
Coghlan, who was in the stands watching was in no way overawed. "If they run the 5,000 metres like that I won't mind. I will just sit in behind them and relax." Coghlan felt he was strong enough to survive a fast pace and fast enough to win a sprint finish.
The first hitch in his plans occurred when on the evening prior to the 5,000 he suffered stomach cramps and two attacks of diarrohea. With regard to food, Coghlan's motto all week had been "think before you eat". To minimise the possibility of contracting any bug or virus he had eaten exactly the same meal of steak, potatoes and peas at both lunch and dinner every day. On the Friday he took stomach settlers in the morning and was thus surprised to suffer a further attack of diarrohea at 2.45 that afternoon. Putting the cramps down to nervous tension, Coghlan went for a lie down and dozed quietly until just after half four, when Ray Flynn came in to wake him up.
It was time to go. He now felt fine, got himself ready and went down to the bus along with Ray Flynn and John Treacy. He climbed onto the bus first (and thought to himself this is a good omen) and sat down in the front seat where John Treacy joined him. Throughout the 15 minute trip from the Olympic Village to the Lenin Stadium the two Irish 5,000 metre finalists sat in silence, both absorbed in their concentration on the race to come.
In total contrast to the Ethiopians there had never been any question of the Irish runners combining tactically to help one another. Indeed at no time on Thursday or Friday before the 5,000 metres did they discuss the race at all.
The reasons for this silence were simple - both men ran as individuals, both wanted to win. In a practical sense there seemed little that they could do to help each other since ideally they each wanted a different type of race. Coghlan's strong point as the fastest miler in the field was his finishing kick, Treacy's strong point as the world's cross country champion was his stamina. A slow run race would suit Coghlan best, a fast run race would suit Treacy best.
On arrival at the warm-up track beside the Stadium, Coghlan went with the other athletes to watch the 1500 metres final on television. Although he is friendly with both Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, Coghlan was keen to see Coe win, both because it had been his pre-Moscow prediction that Coe would beat Ovett and also because he considered Coe to be a similar type of runner to himself - more fast than strong. As he realised Coe was going to hold on and win, he leapt to his feet with a great roar that astonished the other athletes in the room. Whilst everyone else was lost in quiet preparation for their hour of judgement, the mad Irishman was shouting and screaming with delight. Coghlan now felt superb, Coe's will had really psyched him up both because it vindicated his own opinion and because in itself the race had of course been very exciting. He really felt ready to go.
That most intangible of elements in an athletes' preparation, his mental build up, his inspirational state of heightened awareness and concentration, a sort of transcendental trance; all that Coghlan could feel was there.
'He warmed up quietly on his own and unlike at Montreal where he had spent some time looking at his opponents, he ignored all the other runners in the field.
"I knew what I had to do, and throughout the race right until the final kick I did it. It was always my intention to relax off the pace and not to worry if the pace was fast. When the Russian, Feyodtkin, took the field through the first lap in just over sixty seconds, I felt there was no need to stay with that so I slipped back. The first mile was run in approximately 4.16 and I was watching the big electric clock so I knew I was correct to relax, that there was a long way to go."
Throughout the early stages of the race Coghlan felt very good. His main concerns were to relax, to keep Yifter in his sight at all times and to avoid getting boxed in. As the Finn Vainno quickened the pace with four laps to go he took closer order. He still felt good and thought everything was going to plan. "At the bell I felt good, Kedir was out in front and Yifter was boxed in on my inside, screaming at Kedir to lift the pace. I moved up to be ready for Yifter's move and then I heard him shouting at Kedir down the back straight telling him to move over and let him out. When both Yifter and Nyambui went by me, I felt fine, I still hadn't gone for my final kick and it was only with 70 metres to go that my legs started to go under me and I realised I had nothing left. I gave it everything but I couldn't hold off the Finn. As I got to the line all I could think was, it's Montreal all over again, fourth again.
"Crossing the line I got the strangest sensation in my running life. All I wanted to do was lie down. I just lay there waiting for the stretcher blokes to come and carry me away, but they left me lying and I had a hell of a job to pick myself up and trudge out through the tunnel. In sixteen years of running it's the first time I have experienced anything like it.
"My rate of recovery after the race was very slow. At the post-race dope testing I was so exhausted and dehydrated that I couldn't even hold up my head straight. For an hour after the race I had no energy, which for me is unusual."
That evening Coghlan went with his wife to the Ukraine Hotel where a celebration had been laid on for him by an expectant and hopeful Irish party that included his father. At a nearby table Steve Ovett was celebrating his successful games. Even an athlete as experienced as Ovett could find no words of consolation for the despondent Coghlan. Ovett merely greeted him with a gesture of sympathy and said:
"What can I say".
By the following morning Coghlan had recovered and acknowledged that the Montreal experience was standing him in good stead. Despite his tremendous confidence, he had been shrewd and experienced enough to allow for every possibility, even to the extent of not making it to the final. He was making no excuses, he felt that everything had gone right but that on his day of judgement it was just not to be. He was still adamant that he could beat them all.
What went wrong? Coghlan makes two points which might help explain his defeat. He concedes that perhaps the Ethiopians did draw the sting out of his finish by lifting the pace gradually over the last mile and a quarter. He thought he would be plenty strong enough to survive such a tactic but accepts that at this point in his career perhaps he is not. He is certain that he was a hundred per cent on the day, in the year but now feels that in time he could be an even better 5,000 metres runner. At the moment his best distance is perhaps 3,000 metres but that unfortunately is not an Olympic event.
On that particular Friday Coghlan was not the only athlete to find that he had less left in the tank than he expected, Experienced marathon runners like Bernie Ford, Ian Thompson, Dick Black and even the great Lasse Viren failed to finish their races.
Sitting outside the Olympic village on the Saturday morning, calm and composed, Coghlan was consoled by many illustrious passers-by. Peter Coe, father and coach of Sebastian, commiserated by pointing out: "How can the fastest 800 metre man in the world be beaten four yards in a slowly run 800 metres"?
In athletics there are not always answers to such questions. For Coghlan there will be other races, and although he will be 31 in 1984 it is not impossible that he will finally strike gold at Los Angeles, third time lucky. In the meantime, he will be running 1500 metres, mile and 3000 metre races at several of the big sponsored August and September European meetings. The final words on Coghlan's Moscow Olympics experience are from Kenny Moore, nowadays a correspondent for Sports Illustrated, but formerly a marathon runner who finished fourth in the Munich Olympic marathon: "Hell, Eamon, you did everything right, you used your head..
'I used to be able to say to you, I know what it is like to come fourth in an Olympic event… but, man, to come fourth at two Olympics, hell ... " •