John Greene

Ray Flynn re­turned to his home town of Long­ford to share fond mem­o­ries with friends and ri­vals

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN GREENE

No Ir­ish man has beaten Ray Flynn’s time. Cogh­lan came close and they re­main the only two Ir­ish ath­letes to break 3:50. Thirty five years later and Flynn’s record for the mile is in­tact.

HOW­EVER, it is by no means a two-man race, for also among the im­pres­sive line-up are West Ger­man star Thomas Wess­ing­hage, a 3:50.95 per­former, Bri­tain’s ex­cit­ing 21-year-old star Steve Cram, who has run 3:49.95, fel­low coun­try­men Gra­ham Wil­liamson and John Robson, Kenya’s Wil­son Waigwa and brand new Ir­ish record breaker from Long­ford, 25-year-old Ray Flynn, who smashed Ea­monn Cogh­lan’s year-old record (3:52.11) from this meet­ing with times of 3:50.54 and 3:49.77 in Oslo re­cently. It is the type of qual­ity line-up which can carry a world record pace — at least well be­yond the three-quar­ter mile post. It’s over the fi­nal last half lap that valu­able frac­tions are made or lost. Scott prob­a­bly would have bro­ken Coe’s record had he taken the lead a lit­tle ear­lier from Walker in Oslo. Had Ma­ree been in the race the record would surely have gone. This must give Ma­ree en­cour­age­ment as re­ally there has never been more than a yard be­tween the two men. Flynn ran a splen­did race last year when he led Cogh­lan to the fi­nal bend but then had no an­swer. How­ever Ray has proved con­clu­sively he can go the pace with these great mil­ers which en­ables him to utilise his smooth ac­tion. Tom O’Rior­dan, Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent, July 13, 1982

AN­OTHER time. An­other place. A stel­lar field of in­ter­na­tional su­per­star ath­letes gath­ered in the Mardyke in July 1982 to chase a world record. It was a big deal, but it was not un­com­mon. For those of us of a cer­tain age, the sport­ing land­scape may have been dom­i­nated by the big sports then, much as now, but where fans of to­day might dip in and out of in­ter­na­tional suc­cess for box­ers and row­ers, back then it was more likely to be the run­ners and show jumpers who we turned to.

It was a golden era for Ir­ish ath­let­ics. It was a time when the mag­i­cal dis­tance, the mile, sparkled. And it was a com­mon sight to see the world’s great prac­ti­tion­ers on these shores — John Walker, Syd­ney Ma­ree, Steve Scott, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram — and the lead­ing Ir­ish ath­letes too, Cogh­lan, O’Sul­li­van, O’Mara . . . and Ray Flynn.

The week be­fore the Mardyke, Flynn had been part of an­other red-hot line-up at a meet in Oslo. Scott and Walker were tar­get­ing a world record per­for­mance, while Flynn had a tar­get of his own. “We were all chas­ing that night,” Flynn re­calls of the Oslo race. Two weeks ear­lier he had run on the same track and had come ag­o­nis­ingly close to go­ing un­der three min­utes and 50 sec­onds. He knew that on the right night, with the right con­di­tions, he could be the first Ir­ish­man to break that elu­sive 3:50 bar­rier.

“There were places you raced that were fast and you went there to run fast and you were wired for it, and it was all you thought about, and that’s what we did. We were just ma­chines. Just run­ning. It was all we knew how to do.”

On the night, Scott and Walker came up short of their tar­get — al­though they fin­ished first and sec­ond re­spec­tively — but Flynn didn’t. He ran the mile in 3:49.77. He re­mem­bers throw­ing up at the side of the track af­ter­wards and be­ing a lit­tle in­co­her­ent at first. But he re­cov­ered quickly. Job done. And ran back to his ho­tel. Two nights later he was on the start line at a race in Budapest and knocked out a 3:56. That was how it was. Ma­chines. “We just did it.”

He was 25 and in his prime. He may have been run­ning in the shadow of Ea­monn Cogh­lan, who was five years older, but be­tween 1981 and 1983, Flynn ran 44 sub-four-minute miles, and 89 in to­tal in a ca­reer that lasted into his early 30s. No Ir­ish­man has beaten his Oslo time. Cogh­lan came close the fol­low­ing year at an in­door event and they re­main the only two Ir­ish ath­letes to break 3:50. Thirty-five years later and Flynn’s record for the mile is in­tact. He set an Ir­ish record in that race for the 1500m (3:33.5) and that too has never been beaten.

RAY FLYNN loved to run. “When I was born I came feet first and the first thing they said in the hos­pi­tal was, that’s a real Ron­nie Delany.”

Some of his ear­li­est mem­o­ries of sport are watch­ing the Olympics with his fa­ther, Paddy, and he par­tic­u­larly re­mem­bers the Mex­ico games. His early he­roes were the likes of Kip Keino and Jim Ryun, and then David Bed­ford. They in­spired him to run.

It was when he went to St Mel’s Col­lege in Long­ford that he first be­gan to blos­som. He had al­ways felt the pull of run­ning and even though St Mel’s is more renowned as a Gaelic football nurs­ery, his tal­ent was spot­ted. The school is one of the most suc­cess­ful football col­leges in the coun­try but there had al­ways been a run­ning tra­di­tion too and al­though pic­tures of the many sto­ried football teams of the past are dot­ted through its hall­ways, Flynn and a num­ber of other ath­letes — such as Enda Fitzpa­trick, now the di­rec­tor of DCU’s ath­let­ics academy — also take their place on those walls.

Flynn is re­mem­bered in the school as a hum­ble stu­dent who was ded­i­cated to his sport and to his stud­ies. He was also a gifted singer. He is also re­mem­bered for his pos­i­tive out­look, a char­ac­ter­is­tic which jumps out to this day.

He was a fa­mil­iar sight on the roads around Long­ford town at the time as he pounded out mile af­ter mile. “I didn’t re­ally know what I was do­ing at first and back then it was very un­usual to see peo­ple out run­ning. If you saw someone out run­ning it would be like, ‘what are you do­ing?’”

Oth­ers around him could see that this boy had some­thing spe­cial, and even if they weren’t quite sure if they had the re­quired skills to help him de­velop, they knew enough to know they needed to help him. Lo­cal man PJ Quinn read up on train­ing tech­niques and in­tro­duced Flynn to in­ter­val train­ing. Fr Peter Brady in St Mel’s Col­lege went in search of ex­per­tise.

“I was de­ter­mined and I was train­ing ev­ery day and you can recog­nise a young per­son if they are do­ing some­thing well, run­ning well, and bet­ter than ev­ery­body else lo­cally, so in fair­ness to peo­ple like Michael Wall and PJ and Fr Brady they ex­posed me to peo­ple who knew more, or were more in that sphere of run­ning,” says Flynn. “That ex­posed me to peo­ple like Brother John Doo­ley, who was a good run­ner back in his day. He coached me. When I be­came a se­nior at St Mel’s I won the Ir­ish Schools Cham­pi­onship 1500m and then I went on to rep­re­sent Ire­land in the Bri­tish Schools Cham­pi­onship and won. By then I was 17 and very quickly I got a bunch of schol­ar­ship of­fers to go to Amer­ica and within a month I was gone. And that was it.”

Flynn’s neat sum­mary skips the fact that he worked tire­lessly through his teenage years to im­prove him­self as a run­ner. When you talk to peo­ple in Long­ford who re­mem­ber him in those days, it is his ded­i­ca­tion which they say stood out.

With the schol­ar­ship of­fers flow­ing in, he chose East Ten­nessee State Univer­sity. “It wasn’t a very so­phis­ti­cated choice,” he ad­mits. The coach wanted him to come and Dave Walker was a per­sua­sive man, some­thing of a legend of the sport, al­though Flynn didn’t quite un­der­stand that at the time. The Leddy broth­ers from Leitrim — PJ and Ed­die — were stu­dents there and they also had a word in his ear. And so in 1974, he joined the Ir­ish brigade at ETSU, which in­cluded the likes of Frank Gre­ally, the Led­dys, and Neil Cu­sack, who had just won the Bos­ton Marathon.

Be­ing dropped into the en­vi­ron­ment of big league sport in Amer­ica was a mas­sive cul­ture shock for a man from a small town, and it was a strug­gle in the first year.

“The big­gest thing is you go from train­ing, do­ing 30 miles a week, and you thought you were do­ing a lot. So when I was train­ing and do­ing runs around the town, I thought I was do­ing it at a high level. But when I went to Amer­ica it was tripled, we were do­ing 100 miles a week. I strug­gled with that. You strug­gle be­cause you are con­tin­u­ously fa­tigued, and you’re dis­cour­aged be­cause you can’t keep up be­cause you’re not at the same level as the other boys who are used to do­ing it. And you’re young, and you’re body has to ma­ture. It’s sort of like go­ing to boot camp if you’re in the mil­i­tary. That strug­gle was about en­dur­ing, just get­ting through it.

“The crit­ics of it [the US col­le­giate sys­tem] say it kills a lot of ath­letes, kills them off, be­cause it’s one-for-all and it’s not very sci­en­tific, and on that point they are cor­rect. But hav­ing said that, I think that’s the nor­mal at­tri­tion I would say in be­ing a great ath­lete. You’ve got to en­dure it, you’ve got to get through it. I came out the other side of it. I’m sure other peo­ple would dis­agree and say a lot of peo­ple didn’t come out the other side. And they have a point but nev­er­the­less I think it was war­ranted. But I did strug­gle the first year.”

In his ex­cel­lent au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,

Run­ning Full Cir­cle, Frank Gre­ally chron­i­cles his strug­gles set­tling into life in East Ten­nessee, and to meet the stan­dards of the no­to­ri­ously tough taskmas­ter, Coach Walker. Flynn ac­knowl­edges this, but it is his firm con­vic­tion that he would not have suc­ceeded in ath­let­ics if he had stayed in Ire­land.

“I would never have made it with­out just get­ting thrown in. We couldn’t come home. I see the young kids now when they go out on a schol­ar­ship they come for a week­end, they’re home for Christ­mas, they’re home for hol­i­days. Back then in the ’70s we weren’t com­ing home. Dad bought me a ticket and it said June next year, so you knew you were there so you just had to suck it up and do it. I’m not say­ing they are softer now but it’s eas­ier to bale if you want nowa­days. It was not easy then. It sounded grandiose head­ing away but when the week­ends came and all the stu­dents were gone it was just the run­ners on the cam­pus, it was quiet. When hol­i­days came and stu­dents went home, we were left . . . it was a lit­tle empty. But we had each other. It helped hav­ing fa­mil­iar faces.”

Flynn, Gre­ally and oth­ers in the Ir­ish Brigade formed their own mu­sic group and played bars at week­ends to earn some ex­tra money. Flynn re­mained prag­matic about be­ing so far away from home, re­call­ing the dearth of fa­cil­i­ties for him to train and the lack of ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties away from sport given the state of the Ir­ish econ­omy. For him the choice had never been whether to stay or go, it was sim­ply where to go.

“If you are a top run­ner and you run with peo­ple of the same level you may get a lit­tle bet­ter but you’re go­ing to stay around that same level. But if you go to a to­tally new level and run with peo­ple who are bet­ter than you, you will even­tu­ally get there — if you are good enough and have the tal­ent. The races are what re­ally prime you; the ex­pe­ri­ence and the ap­ti­tude to rac­ing at a bet­ter level . . . that’s re­ally what brings on ma­tu­rity and makes you a bet­ter ath­lete.”

THE mid-’80s was an ex­tra­or­di­nary pe­riod for Ir­ish ath­let­ics. Cogh­lan won gold in the 5000m at the 1983 World Cham­pi­onships, John Treacy took sil­ver a year later in the Olympic marathon, Frank O’Mara won gold in the 3000m at the World In­door Cham­pi­onships in 1987, and Mar­cus O’Sul­li­van won the 1500m at the same cham­pi­onships.

In 1985, Flynn, Cogh­lan, O’Mara and O’Sul­li­van broke the world record for the re­lay mile on a mem­o­rable evening in UCD. “It was a big deal,” says Flynn. “Think about it: you were ask­ing four guys to run un­der four min­utes for the mile con­sec­u­tively.”

On Mon­day night last, in Long­ford, a cel­e­bra­tory paced mile was run through the town to cel­e­brate Flynn’s achieve­ment in 1982. At a func­tion af­ter­wards in the Long­ford Arms Ho­tel, that 1985 re­lay in aid of GOAL was shown. Watch­ing it for the first time in some years, Flynn was struck by how easy the four had made the run look. GOAL founder John O’Shea and Cogh­lan were among the guests who took Flynn by sur­prise on the night.

“It was a great quar­tet,” says Flynn. “I would have been the weak­est link in ret­ro­spect be­cause Mar­cus and Frank were later world cham­pi­ons but iron­i­cally they wanted me to an­chor be­cause I was the fittest of any­body at the time. The weight was on my shoul­ders be­cause if we were be­hind I had to make it up. As it turned out I had a big lead.

“John O’Shea was say­ing last night, ‘Flynn all you had to do was run through it’, but I still ran 3.56 solo. It’s no mean feat on any day. But hav­ing said that I was ready for it, and I agreed to an­chor. I had night­mares about get­ting the stick and hear­ing, ‘you’re two sec­onds off it you gotta go for it now’. But it didn’t hap­pen that way. Ac­tu­ally, Mar­cus and Frank made the record. They put in the work, they ran su­per from the mid­dle and brought us un­derneath the time. We all had to do it. Other teams who have run this kind of race ef­fort, some­body al­ways messes up. If you have four guys in a re­lay run­ning a long dis­tance to­gether, one guy will have a bad day. It’s the law of av­er­ages, it’s what hap­pens. But we all did it on that night and that was what was spe­cial about it. And it was spe­cial be­cause we did it on home soil, with guys I have the great­est re­spect for and were a priv­i­lege to run with.”

Flynn and Cogh­lan were ri­vals then, but with the pas­sage of time they have be­come closer. “Our his­tory has con­nected us,” says Flynn. And when Cogh­lan came through the door of the func­tion room last Mon­day night, the two em­braced warmly.

Flynn en­joyed that run last week in his home town. He turned 60 last Jan­uary but still makes a point of run­ning three or four times a week. “My wife showed me a video of me run­ning last night and I think I’m a dif­fer­ent guy than the guy I saw in the video, which is kind of funny watch­ing it. ‘Who’s that? I don’t know that guy, he’s like shuf­fling along’ . . . and I thought I was run­ning pretty fast!

“When I was run­ning five-minute-mile reps, or run­ning out at a cer­tain pace like six min­utes, six min­utes was like a jog, now I can’t even touch one six-minute mile. In your brain you’re still think­ing half-an-hour that’s prob­a­bly six miles but it’s not, it’s like three miles . . . I only run be­cause it’s all I ever knew. I’m sort of wired for that.”

FLYNN met his wife Jan in col­lege and they made their home in John­son City, Ten­nessee. He gets back to Long­ford as of­ten as he can to visit his mother and his sib­lings. These days he runs a very suc­cess­ful com­pany man­ag­ing ath­letes and counts the likes of Ciara Mageean among his clients.

He didn’t quite drift into that ca­reer af­ter his run­ning days ended, but hav­ing com­pleted a busi­ness de­gree in col­lege, and hav­ing had to work hard to make a suc­cess of him­self as an ath­lete, it was in hind­sight a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion.

“What hap­pens is, slowly, the wheels come off. When you get past 30, and other ath­letes say the same thing, you suf­fer mi­nor in­juries and nig­gles that hurt your train­ing and in­hibit rac­ing. It doesn’t hap­pen overnight.

“The writ­ing was on the wall and I had to face re­al­ity. I could run sub-four min­utes any day of the year and sud­denly you’re run­ning four-point-zero-zero and the young kids are com­ing up and you have to face re­al­ity — you can’t do this for­ever. That’s when I thought, I can form a ca­reer be­ing a busi­ness man­ager to ath­letes be­cause I’ve learned so much of the trade on the cir­cuit. I knew the peo­ple per­son­ally; re­la­tion­ships are every­thing in life and I knew all the race pro­mot­ers. In a way it was a smooth tran­si­tion to do what I’m do­ing to­day, but it took a while to build the cred­i­bil­ity be­cause you can’t just as­sume a new po­si­tion overnight. It takes a while to be taken se­ri­ously in any­thing.

“I be­lieve you’re pre­par­ing for some­thing else all your life. You don’t know it at the time, but I re­ally be­lieve that. You’re ex­pe­ri­ence in your life is that each day, what­ever you’re do­ing, is mak­ing you more com­plete as an en­tity, and in be­ing ready for the next phase of your life.”

Still, it was a ma­jor ad­just­ment to come from high-level sport to the world of run­ning your own busi­ness. Time has moved on and it will soon be 30 years since his last race. These days his clients keep him firmly on track. “I have learned through my ca­reer in the busi­ness of sports man­age­ment that the young kids that I man­age now who are 22, 23 years old, they don’t know any­thing of what hap­pened more than five or six years ago, let alone 40 years ago. Many of the ath­letes I rep­re­sent have come to me years later and said, ‘Mr Flynn, we didn’t know you were a run­ner’. They’re not from Long­ford, they’re from Min­nesota or Cal­i­for­nia or what­ever. I’m do­ing a dif­fer­ent job for them. I’m not rep­re­sent­ing them be­cause I was a good ath­lete, it’s be­cause I do a good job man­ag­ing them.”

He re­mains im­mersed in the sport and is still in love with it, de­spite all that has hap­pened. He was thrilled by the World Cham­pi­onships in Lon­don, and is as ex­cited now by good rac­ing as he has ever been. He sees the pos­i­tives, the spread of par­tic­i­pa­tion across the whole world, and not just the richer coun­tries of the West, and a sport try­ing to come to terms with its prob­lems.

But the stain is still there. Has been for a long time.

“We al­ways felt that there were peo­ple cheat­ing, but we didn’t re­ally know much about it,” he says of his time as an ath­lete. “What we didn’t re­alise at the time was that we were al­ways tested when we’d go to the meets, the same guys, and I think that was be­cause they knew we were clean. I think there was col­lu­sion some­times be­tween the or­gan­is­ers and the testers. They didn’t want any ex­po­sure.”

Flynn reached the 5000m fi­nal at the 1984 Olympics and be­fore the race the Fin­nish run­ner Martti Vainio was taken out of the start­ing line-up. “Vainio had got a sil­ver in the 10000 me­tres and was in my fi­nal in the 5000 me­tres. Vainio was pulled be­cause he had tested pos­i­tive for blood dop­ing the pre­vi­ous day, af­ter the 10. He had blood-doped and they caught him in a test.”

He says they knew there were cheats but that “no­body was do­ing any­thing about it”.

At least, he says, that much has changed in that they are try­ing to catch the cheats. “Peo­ple who think they are get­ting away with this to­day, and yes they are cheat­ing you out of your op­por­tu­nity to win if they beat you, but they will be ex­posed in five years’ time or seven years’ time when they catch up with them. That’s the sil­ver lin­ing.

“It’s not a per­fect sys­tem but I think they feel a lot bet­ter about it now. The truth is that we’ll never re­ally know un­til time passes if some­thing is as we see it to­day. You may see a new cham­pion, a new record set, and it looks all good and in five or seven years time they may dis­cover that there was some­thing that per­son was tak­ing that was not de­tectable.

“I ran 3.49 in 1982 and no­body has run faster than that since. I know I never took any­thing and I think I’ve al­ways had the be­lief that if I can run that fast and I didn’t do any­thing wrong and I didn’t take any­thing, it’s too easy to say ev­ery­body’s on drugs. Like, I hate that de­featist at­ti­tude that says, ‘well I can’t beat them be­cause they’re faster, they’re prob­a­bly all cheat­ing’ or what­ever. I have al­ways be­lieved that peo­ple are good first; I think the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple are try­ing to do it the right way. It’s like every­thing in life.”

IT’S a bright Tues­day af­ter­noon in Long­ford town and Flynn is still clearly hum­bled by the trib­utes paid to him the night be­fore, and smil­ing at the fun and the mem­o­ries he shared with O’Shea, Gre­ally, Cogh­lan, Fitzpa­trick and an­other lo­cal legend, Liam Fenelon, who has run more than 300 marathons, and a host of well wish­ers and — who knows — a fu­ture star.

As our con­ver­sa­tion is draw­ing to a close, he is asked to re­flect on what his ath­let­ics ca­reer meant to him.

“When it’s all said and done, it’s a per­sonal en­deav­our. It’s an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing that makes you feel bet­ter about your­self; it’s an iden­tity. You could be a singer, you could be a broad­caster or jour­nal­ist, you could be a doc­tor, and for me run­ning gave me that.

“At the end of the day the records are go­ing to get bro­ken and every­thing’s go­ing to fade away and new peo­ple will come along, and that’s good. So I don’t go around think­ing I could have done that, or should have done that. So maybe I fin­ished sec­ond more than I did first, but who cares?

“I did my best.”

‘I was born feet first and the first thing they said was, that’s a real Ron­nie Delany’

When Cogh­lan came through the door last Mon­day, the two em­braced warmly

Main photo: Ray Flynn run­ning in the 1500m at the 1987 World Cham­pi­onships in Rome (Photo: Billy Stickland); Above: Frank O’Mara, Mar­cus O’Sul­li­van, Ray Flynn and Ea­monn Cogh­lan af­ter set­ting a world record for the 4 x 1mile re­lay in a time of 15:49:99...

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