Barr’s Olympic ambition: “I’d love to be in the final”
It starts tomorrow.
After the season of his life, followed by three weeks exploring Kenya, a surfing trip to Portugal, and one exhaustive day spent doing interviews with the national press, it’s now time for Thomas Barr to get back to work.
In 10 months’ time, the Waterford athlete will, barring injury, compete at his first Olympic Games; after finishing 11th in the World this year, the goal in Rio de Janeiro is already beginning to crystallise in the 23-year-old’s mind.
“I’d love to be in the final,” he said today, speaking at the launch of Electric Ireland partnership with the Olympic Council of Ireland. “If I can come away and run my best, I’ll be happy. Where I’ve come from the last few years, I’m hopefully going to live up to my potential.”
Life in the big leagues
This was a season to remember for Barr, who set the national record of 48.65 at the Rome Diamond League in June, took gold at the World University Games in July, then ran 48.71 to bow out at the semi-final stage in Beijing. Besides Rome, Barr competed in four other Diamond League events throughout the summer and, after his first season at the top tier, he now feels he belongs there.
“It was a long, tough season,” he said. “It’s given me an idea of the pressure, the nerves, the expectation that comes with [being a top athlete], and also how to prepare properly for the big event. Beijing gave me a great sample of that and the fact that I’ve been to Diamond Leagues and competed against all the guys I’ll face next year is massive. I know if I hadn’t done world student Games I could have gone faster in Beijing, but I didn’t want to turn down a medal at the World University Games.”
In Beijing, Barr finished fourth in his semi-final in 48.71 in a race won by Kenya’s Boniface Tumuti, who finished fifth in the final. The gold was won by fellow Kenyan Nicholas Bett, who had never broken 49 seconds until this year but ran 47.79 to take the title. Given that the rumours of a doping problem in Kenya gained further traction throughout the summer, was Barr at all suspicious of his rivals’ improvement?
“They really came out of the woodwork,” he said. “It was really disheartening when you see two other Kenyan athletes get caught a couple of days later, so I was hoping that if these guys are on drugs they would get caught, but they’re innocent until proven guilty, and it’s unfair to accuse if they’re clean, but it is a little bit suspicious.
‘All you can hope is anti-doping is going to pass out doping’
“Often for Worlds and Olympics you will get people coming out of nowhere. The times weren’t exceptionally fast at the Worlds, but every good performance is going to be tainted because so much has come out about doping in the last few years. All you can hope is that anti-doping is going to pass out doping, if there are people out there who are cheating that I’m running against.”
Barr noted that his improved performances this year have naturally attracted more attention from the Irish Sports Council’s anti-doping branch, but he sees it as a welcome intrusion. “I was tested at least two or three times a month,” he says. “The drug testers got to know me so well that they knew my room was on the ground floor and they knew to knock on my window so they didn’t wake up my housemates. We’re lucky in Ireland that we have one of the best anti-doping systems in the world. There’s a massive stigma attached when someone takes drugs. Some other countries don’t experience the same, like when Martin Fagan came back; he wanted to come back but decided not to because of the pressure he faced.”
Ahead of the Olympic Games, Barr is acutely aware that the pressure from the public will ramp up for him to produce a big performance, but he feels expectations need to be kept in check ahead of next summer. “It doesn’t bother me because the armchair athletics fan will watch it but not read into it, and I’m guilty as charged when I watched the rugby at the weekend, and stormed out and just thought: ‘useless’.
“I want to come away knowing I did everything to prepare as best I can, leave no stone unturned, then whatever happens, happens, and it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks.”
Barr is currently preparing to complete his thesis for a Master’s in sports performance in UL, which he hopes to finish by December. “Once I get that out of the way, I’m free to train from January onwards,” he says.
Though it may feel a lifetime away now, the 300-day clock to Rio has already started ticking, and 2015 is quickly disappearing into the rear-view mirror.
With 2016 looming on the horizon, it’s time to get to work.