The Healy Phenomenon: an incredible beauty is born for athletics

By now you’ve seen it.

You’ve watched the video, probably rewound it, looked again at the impossible situation presented to Phil Healy on that final 400m leg, and thought to yourself: ‘no…****ing…way’.

By now you’ve had it swarm your social media feeds, witnessed the feat of a modest Bandon sprinter snatching your attention ahead of the desperate limelight-seeking kings Conor McGregor and Donald Trump, if only just for a day.

In the past 24 hours, the video of Phil Healy overcoming a 70-80-metre deficit (yes, it was so damn far we couldn’t even gauge it) has gone viral in a way athletics videos just simply…do not. Half a million people have watched the YouTube video by nTrai, and that’s not including sites who have posted it themselves. It’s been on most major news sites in Britain and Ireland, aired on national TV news in New Zealand last night, and the majority of America’s biggest sport sites – SBNation, Deadspin, Vice Sports, Fox Sports. A little birdie tells us it may even make its way on the biggest TV sports show in the world, watched by almost a million Americans every night: ESPN’s SportsCenter.

All this, for a 4x400m college race? A race won in outside four minutes – a pretty, shall we say, modest standard – really?

Yes, it happened, and over the last day literally millions of people have sat back, watched Healy emerge from the depths of hell (I still don’t know where I got that from), and stage what amounted to divine intervention on that last leg for UCC. It was a demonstration of resilience, of never-give-up, eyeballs-out running from the 21-year-old.

It was more, though.

It was also a lesson of hope in the face of overwhelming odds, and a necessary reminder that at is best, nothing evokes as much adrenaline and absolute awe in us as the beauty of sport.

Lies, damned lies, and dopers

Athletics? Remember that sport? It may seem unconscionable now, but before those corrupt dopers and crooks went and pissed all over its beautiful facade, it was once one of the most pure exhibits of athletic artistry on the planet.

A place to turn for inspiration, for stories of humans exhibiting otherworldly ability but next-door-neighbour nobility and modesty. Then drugs came along, drug testing followed and a lot of the people we thought were heroes were exposed as home-made chemistry sets who smiled and lied right to our faces.

With less than four months until the Olympic Games – and after the worst year ever for the sport’s public image – faith in the sport’s purity had never been lower among the general public.

Honest, hardworking athletes who are several leagues above Phil Healy are busting their asses each day knowing that even if they succeed in Rio de Janeiro, their feats may be disregarded by the masses whose only awareness of the sport has become the headline they just scrolled past on Twitter about the latest scandal.

For that reason, Healy’s run was important. Not just important, in fact. It was damn-near vital.

Mass appeal

It was proof once again that people can care about athletics, that once they’re willing to wade through all the bullshit and betrayal, to sift through the wreckage left behind by all those crooks and thieves who did their best to ruin everything for everyone, they’ll realise there’s a thousand compelling storylines happening every week in this sport, if only they’d sit up and pay attention.

Coach Shane McCormack and Phil Healy after the 4x400m. Image: IUAA

Coach Shane McCormack and Phil Healy after the 4x400m. Image: IUAA

Let’s get this straight: Healy’s run was very, very good, but it was not, as they say, great.

She knows this. Her coach, Shane McCormack, also knows this. He clocked her at approximately 54 seconds on that final leg, four seconds outside the Irish record, and neither will be thinking they’ve got any closer to ‘making it’ as a result of anchoring the UCC team to victory in an intervarsity relay.

Healy is a 100m/200m specialist who made a late decision to jump in the relay to earn some extra points for her college and found herself riding the perfect storm of athletes who suddenly became shipwrecked out front. She’s run 11.49 and 23.74 for the 100m and 200m, performances inherently much better than what she achieved in that relay leg, and it will likely be in one of those events that she represents Ireland at the European Championships in July.

In stepping into that relay, though, and in expending every last ounce of energy she had over the course of those 400 metres, she offered up a gift to the sport of athletics.

It was a chance for the sport to reach out to people and demonstrate that not only is there still purity – yes, I’ll be happy to be hanged publicly if any of those athletes are shown to be drug cheats – but there are also pulsating performances which can stir emotions as well as any other sportsperson, or any other sport.

The fact it was a group of female athletes who held the internet captive for a day made it all the better. In a world where their achievements are all-too-often overlooked or considered only in tandem with their appearances, it was proof of the equality of athletics. The men’s race, if you’re wondering, was a snore.

Phil Healy, the sport of athletics owes you a debt of gratitude today.

That one race won’t change people’s perceptions about the sport, and nor should it, but maybe – just maybe – it has helped them remember that beneath the ugliness they’ve come to know, come to accept, there is still a whole lot of beauty left.

And we should never forget that.

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Frank Murphy with the Athletics Ireland Hall of Fame Award. Pic: Sportsfile
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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