This week – on the 21st of November – Irish distance legend Eamonn Coghlan turned 70. In honour of the occasion, we take a look back at Coghlan’s rise to the top, then look at his greatest performances. We will then look at his career post-athletics and his extraordinary legacy.
Coghlan was born in Drimnagh in the south side of Dublin in 1952. Knock-kneed as a child, he wore corrective orthotics for a while until he grew and gradually overcame the problem. He loved cross-country and began to win age races in and around Dublin. Local coach Gerry Farnan worked with young Eamonn and helped improve his endurance – as well as his speed, which would serve him well throughout his career.
Like a number of Irishmen (Ronnie Delany, John Hartnett, Don Walsh et al), Coghlan won a scholarship to Villanova University and would join the legendary Jim ‘Jumbo’ Elliott, one of the great NCAA athletics coaches. Coghlan thrived in Jumbo’s system, which would include sessions of 20 x 440y with 60 seconds recovery and 15 mile runs in the brutal Pennsylvania winters. He showed rapid improvement under this regime and Elliott could see he had a potential world-beater on his hands.
Coghlan enjoyed success in college, winning four national NCAA titles and he dropped his mile PB by almost 20 seconds during his time in college. He became particularly adept at racing indoors. So successful was Coghlan indoors, he eventually earned the moniker ‘Chairman of the Boards’.
He ran his first sub-4 minute mile in Pittsburgh in 1975 (3.56.2) and soon took on Filbert Bayi (TAN) and Marty Liquori (USA) in a mile in Kingston, Jamaica, which was a world record attempt for Bayi. Bayi scraped inside Jim Ryun’s world record (3.51.0) with Liquori second in 3.52.2. Coghlan ran a European record in third (3.53.3).
Coghlan had an incredibly successful career in the sport – indoors and outdoors – winning major races all over the world and running several national, European and world records. Here are his greatest career performances.
World Championships, 5000m. Helsinki, Finland, August 1983:
Winning gold here in the inaugural World Championships was Coghlan’s greatest achievement. It was vindication for Coghlan, as he had emphatically proved the doubters wrong. He had disappointments over his career, most notably his two fourth place finishes in Olympic finals (Montreal 1500m ’76 & Moscow 5000m ’80) and his poor tactical race in Montreal still rankles.
Achilles problems and stress fractures kept him out of the 1982 European Championships, but Coghlan had returned to peak fitness. His world indoor mile record in February and some big wins and fast times over the summer gave him the confidence that he could take on anyone.
Coghlan cruised through the opening rounds and was ready for the race of his life. The final would be without world record-holder Dave Moorcroft (GBR), though European champion Thomas Wessinghage (FRG), Doug Padilla (USA), local hero Martti Vainio (FIN), Wodajo Bulti (ETH), Julian Goater (GBR), Markus Ryfell (SUI), Werner Schildhauer (GDR) and an unknown Soviet Dimitriy Dimitriyev would be among the 15 finalists.
It was a slow pace early. Krokhmaliuk (URS) led at 1km (2.43.30) and the 2km split was 5.34.15. Goater surged to the front at about halfway and then Dimitriyev took over and led at 3km (8.19.52). At 4km (11.03), Dimitriyev injected some pace and opened a small gap. With 600m to go, Dimitriyev had a lead of 15 metres and Coghlan began to chase hard, closing in on the Russian with about 350m to go. Wessinghage was struggling and was passed by Schildhauer and Vainio. With 200m to go, Coghlan and Dimitriyev were ten metres up on the pack and Coghlan was cruising.
There was 150m to go and Coghlan was on Dimitriyev’s shoulder, ready to pounce. Coghlan realized the race was his and his fist pump, after he glanced back at the chasers and snuck a look at Dimitriyev, was one of the iconic images of the Championships.
With 120m left, Coghlan shifted gears and sped away from the Russian. He crossed the line, arms aloft, in 13.28.53, almost 15m up on Schildhauer (13.30.20), with Vainio just out dipping Dimitriyev for the bronze (13.30.34 to 13.30.38). Wessinghage was 6th in 13.32.46. Coghlan’s last 1km was run in about 2.24 and he had finally captured a global title.
Like John Treacy at Limerick in ’79, Ronnie Delany in Melbourne in ’56 and Sonia O’Sullivan’s cross-country double in Morocco in ’98, Coghlan’s win was one of the great moments in Irish athletics history. That afternoon (14/8/83), there was a special moment at a major rock concert at Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Supergroups like Simple Minds, the Eurythmics and others were performing and news of Coghlan’s victory came through. Paul Hewson, the lead singer of a local Dublin band playing that day, announced Coghlan’s win to a huge roar from the crowd.
The win was bittersweet for Coghlan. He had lost his three most important male mentors within the previous two years. Jumbo Elliott and Gerry Farnan died in 1981 and his beloved father Billy had passed away earlier in the year. Though sad he was unable to share his triumph with them, he was proud that he was able to vindicate their faith in his talent and determination. He dedicated his win to all three men.
World Indoor Mile Record – The First Sub 3.50 – New Jersey USA, February 1983:
After missing virtually all of the 1982 season through injury, Coghlan had a great winter’s training. Certain key training sessions and some races early in the year indicated that he was in very good form. As mentioned, Coghlan had lost his father in the weeks before the Vitalis meeting in New Jersey and though he was shattered, he was determined to break his world record and go under 3.50. He would do it for Dad, Jumbo and Gerry.
A win in the Wanamaker Mile a few weeks before the Vitalis meet gave him confidence. He would be facing a top field in Jersey. There was Irish national record-holder (outdoor), Ray Flynn, American Steve Scott and Spaniard Jose Abascal. Coghlan had written the splits he wanted on a piece of paper and hoped that pacemaker Ross Donoghue would stick to the plan.The track for the Vitalis meeting at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford was about 165 yards, which meant the race would be just over ten laps of the painted blue timber track. As a renowned indoor track star, Coghlan had been a consultant on the construction of the track.
From the gun, Coghlan went out hard with Donoghue and they were up a few yards on the field at the quarter mile (56.5). Donoghue led until the half mile (1.55.7) and promptly dropped out. Coghlan took over. Passing the three-quarter mile in 2.54.6, Coghlan sensed that the record was on and began to push hard. He had established a lead of ten yards going into the final lap and he drove for home. He crossed the line in 3.49.78, taking almost a second off his world record and creating history with the first indoor sub-four. Coghlan suggested it was akin to John Walker’s outdoor sub 3.50 in ’75 or Roger Bannister’s first ever sub-4. Flynn was second in 3.51.20, with Scott third (3.52.28) and Abascal fourth (3.52.56).
This was a fabulous performance from Coghlan, who would go on to enjoy the greatest year of his career.
World Indoor 2000m record, Inglewood CA, USA. February 1987:
This was one of the very best and largely unheralded performances of Coghlan’s career. Already 34, he was considered to be past his best and he had suffered several injury-plagued years prior to ’87.
By late ’86, he had regained form and was training consistently, when there was another setback. Out on a 15 mile run in Dublin, he was attacked by a dog. He was bitten 5 times on the legs and sustained a minor fracture to his hand. Coghlan lost a week or two of training, but his canine assailant (believed to be a fan of Ray Flynn) did not deter Coghlan from his goals for the 1987: winning the inaugural World Indoor 1500m title and defending his outdoor world title.
Coghlan had won a record 7th Wanamaker Mile in New York and went to California to break Steve Scott’s world indoor 2000m record (4.58.6) before heading to Indianapolis for the World Indoors in March.
In the Inglewood 2000m, the pace was on from the gun and following a steady, hard pace, Coghlan was flowing along beeautifully. Passing the mile split in 3.59.4, Coghlan knew the record was his. Accelerating over the final two laps, Coghlan covered the final 400m in just over 56 seconds and crossed the line in 4.54.07, shattering Scott’s record. Coghlan’s was a time that only 4 men had bettered outdoors and the record survived 12 years before being bettered by Haile Gebrselassie. Coghlan is still the 4th fastest man ever indoors.
In the World Indoors 1500m heats in March, Coghlan collided with Dieter Baumann, broke his rhythm and, unable to recover, missed a place in the final. Though angry and frustrated, there was consolation for Coghlan, as he saw fellow Irishmen Marcus O’Sullivan (1500m) and Frank O’Mara (3000m) win gold. O’Sullivan – a fellow Villanova alumnus – won the first of his three1500m titles and O’Mara won the first of his two golds in the 3000m. Another Irishman, Paul Donovan, won silver in the 3000m. All three men were teenagers in the late ‘70s, inspired by Coghlan’s achievements in the sport.
World Cup 5000m, Rome Italy, September 1981:
This race demonstrated both Coghlan’s tactical nous and tremendous finishing speed, as he triumphed in what was a slow, tactical race against very good athletes.
Running for the combined European team, Coghlan faced East German Hansjorg Kunze (who would break the European record a few days later), Matt Centrowitz Snr (USA), local Italian favourite Vittorio Fontanella, Valeriy Abramov and Tolossa Kotu (AFR).
The pace slowed to a crawl after 200m, and they were running 70 second laps, until Fontanella’s surge at 3km (8.47.20), before the pace slowed and everyone gathered for a last lap sprint. The final 200m was a three way battle and it was close all the way down the straight, with Coghlan just edging out 21 year-old Kunze (14.08.39 to 14.08.54), with Fontanella third in 14.09.06.
Coghlan covered the final 300m in 38.7 and, though it was not a world or Olympic title, it was nonetheless a huge career win.
European Championships 1500m, Prague Czechoslovakia, September 1978:
The crowd at the Evzena Rosickeho Stadium were treated to another breathtakingly brilliant performance from Great Britain’s Steve Ovett, who had become the world’s dominant miler. He destroyed a deep field and it was another great run from Coghlan in second place.
Ovett won silver in the 800m at the Championships behind the unknown Olaf Beyer (GDR). Though defeated, he broke Sebastian Coe’s national record (Coe was third) and Ovett was a clear favourite for the 1500m.
Coghlan and Ovett lined up against the likes of Beyer and his teammate Jurgen Straub, Britons Dave Moorcroft and John Robson, Antti Loikkanen (FIN), Thomas Wessinghage (FRG), Frenchmen Jose Marajo and Francis Gonzalez and local Slovak veteran Jozef Plachy.
The pace was solid from the gun. Gonzalez led at 400m (57.51), with Coghlan back in the pack. Gonzalez was still in front at 800m (1.57.73) with Wessinghage on his heels. Loikkanen led at 1200m (2.56.72) with Ovett lurking on his shoulder. With 200m to go, Ovett struck and kicked away from the field, opening a substantial gap. He won easily and covered the last 200m in about 25.6, finishing in a Championship record (3.35.57).
Behind Ovett, Moorcroft passed a fading Loikkanen and looked to have second place sewn up, before Coghlan came home like a train in lane three and reeled in Moorcroft with 5 metres to go to capture the silver medal. Coghlan’s time of 3.36.57 was his career best outdoors and the silver medal was a major career highlight.
European Indoor Championships, Vienna Austria, February 1979:
Unlike Midge Ure, who remains indifferent to the charms of Austria’s historic capital city, Coghlan has fond memories of the place. This was the first major international championship win for Coghlan, at what was an intense, action-packed event.
It featured a closely fought women’s 400m between Verona Elder (GBR) and Jarmila Kratochvilova (TCH) and exciting wins by Poles Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz (pole vault) and Marian Woronin (60m).
The 1500m was just as compelling. Coghlan faced Ray Flynn, Thomas Wessinghage and fellow West German Harald Hudak, Scot John Robson and Finn Antti Loikkanen.
Coghlan’s indoor experience shone through, as he controlled the race like a conductor. He timed his finish to perfection, kicking away from Wessinghage on the last lap. Coghlan prevailed and won gold in 3.41.8 to Wessinghage’s 3.42.2. The talented and versatile young Scot Robson took the bronze in 3.42.8.
World Indoor Mile Record, San Diego CA, USA. February 1981:
Coghlan smashed his own world record here and came close to the 3.50 mile barrier. At the annual Jack-In-The-Box meeting, Coghlan’s main challenger was an in-form Steve Scott. Coghlan had beaten Scott at the recent Millrose Games and planned to win and break his own world record. He would also take on John Walker, Harald Hudak, Ray Flynn and Filbert Bayi.
Coghlan had enlisted the help of fellow Villanova alumnus, ‘Tiny’ Kane to be pacemaker. Coghlan instructed Kane to run the first half in 1.56 and Kane was slightly ahead of schedule, passing 880 yards in 1.55.5, with Scott running 1.56.6 and Coghlan third in 1.56.7.
Kane slowed and Scott took over, leading at the three-quarter mile mark (2.55.4) with Walker on his shoulder and Coghlan just behind Scott. With 300 yards left, Coghlan kicked and stole a small gap and headed for the finish. He built a lead of almost 10 yards and stopped the clock at 3.50.6, breaking his own world record by two seconds and he covered the last quarter in 55.0. He also smashed Walker’s 1500m record en route (3.35.6).
Scott was second (3.51.8) and Walker third (3.52.8). Coghlan was slightly disappointed in missing out on a sub 3.50, but would achieve his goal two years later.
World Record, 4 x 1 mile Relay. Dublin, Ireland. August 1985:
The Irish ‘A’ team (Coghlan, Ray Flynn, Frank O’Mara & Marcus O’Sullivan) broke the world 4 x 1 mile relay record at a specially arranged charity event in front of a huge home crowd and it was one of the most special moments in the history of the sport in Ireland. They smashed the world record by ten seconds and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for the Ethiopian famine.
It almost didn’t happen. The world record attempt was the brainchild of John O’Shea, the founder of GOAL, Ireland’s most prominent charitable organization and O’Shea had to do a lot of work just to get all four athletes on the starting line.
There would also be Irish ‘B’ and ‘C’ teams racing and the ‘B’ team would feature Olympic silver medallist and multiple World Cross Country champion, John Treacy.
O’Sullivan had to be coaxed into running the relay. O’Shea stressed to O’Sullivan the opportunity to take part in something very special. O’ Sullivan had been focused on running the lucrative European circuit, though he was eventually convinced to run.
Coghlan, O’Mara and Flynn were all initially keen, though there were misgivings expressed about Coghlan’s involvement. Coghlan had barely run at all in the previous few months, battling various injuries and by his own admission, he was well down on form and he felt he might only run about 4.15 at best.
Coghlan himself doubted whether he should race at all and O’Shea, concerned that the event would lose its biggest drawcard, decided to appeal to Coghlan’s ego. He casually suggested that if he really didn’t want to run, Treacy could run Coghlan’s opening leg, instead of the first leg for the ‘B’ team, taking Coghlan’s place. Coghlan’s response was unprintable, though the message was clear: no way would Treacy take his spot. He would go against Treacy on the first leg and, however out of shape he was, there was no way he’d be beaten by Treacy.
At Belfield, on the campus of University College Dublin, the track’s small grandstand filled rapidly and there was a sense of anticipation that something extraordinary was on the cards.
Coghlan’s opening leg performance was pure grit, as he took over the lead from Treacy and started to kick away over the last 150m before the first baton changeover. Treacy, running the best mile of his career, came back at the tiring Coghlan and Coghlan only just finished in front of Treacy, clocking 4.00.2 for his leg.
Coghlan was completely spent and handed over to O’Sullivan, who took off as if fired from a gun, covering his opening quarter in around 56 flat. The 23 year-old O’Sullivan had the crowd going berserk as they realized his was history in the making. O’Sullivan ran 3.55.3 for his split – fastest of the day. It was then over to O’Mara, who went out just as hard. He slowed slightly over the last 600m of his leg, but came home well to hand the baton to Flynn. O’Mara ran 3.56.6 for his leg.
Flynn, with ample experience in relay running from college, went out at a hard, yet controlled tempo, settling into a rhythm. He pushed hard on the third lap, and, hearing the crowd noise, dug deep on the final circuit. His split was 3.56.9 and he stopped the clock at 14.49.08 – a new world record.
The record survives to this day and 37 years later, the four men still gather occasionally – in person or on Zoom – and wax nostalgic over a special moment in Irish sporting history.
First Over 40 Sub 4 Minute Mile, Cambridge Mass. USA, February 1994
After the Olympics in 1988, where he was a forlorn figure, fading to last in his semi, his career began to wind down. He was still running, though not seriously. In early 1992, he noted that his old rival John Walker had recently attempted to run a sub 4-minute mile at a 40 year-old, but had fallen short due to an achilles injury. Coghlan was up for the challenge. He had run a 2.25 marathon in New York in late ’91 and he would be 40 in November ’92. He targeted the ‘92/93 season for an attempt on the sub 4 mile.
He prepared meticulously and in February 1993, Coghlan had a fantastic run at Madison Square Garden, but just missed out. His 4.01.39 was a new M40 indoor world record, though he was a little deflated. Another of Coghlan’s world class contemporaries, Dave Moorcroft, got in shape over the ‘92/’93 winter– with the aid of training partner Aussie Jamie Harrison – and attempted the mark outdoors in the summer of ’93. He also missed the mark but ran 4.02.53 – a new world M40 outdoor record.
Another year on – early ’94 – Coghlan was in perhaps slightly better shape and felt he still had a real shot at history. An easy 1.55 800m was a final tune up for Coghlan and that February, he went to the Harvard indoor track in Cambridge, where, before a crowd of 3,000, he produced one final great performance.
Former 1980s 800m star Stanley Redwine showed everyone he’d aged like his namesake beverage and paced Coghlan to a perfect split for the half mile (1.59.76) and Coghlan took it on from there. Hitting the three quarter mile mark in 2.59.21, he was right on schedule and he dug deep to produce a last quarter of 58.94 to finish in 3.58.15.
It was number 83 of his career sub 4s and signalled the end of a magical career. It hadn’t all been roses for Coghlan, however.
Setbacks, Regrets, He’s Had A Few:
Though Coghlan enjoyed a remarkably long career (his first sub 4 was run in 1975, his last in 1994), he had more than his share of setbacks. He missed the 1984 Olympics and the 1982 and 1986 European Championships through injuries and has dealt with issues like stress fractures, achilles problems and he is now reduced to minimal amounts of jogging due to a hip problem.
As mentioned, he was bitterly disappointed by Montreal ’76, where he led at 1200m but failed to respond to John Walker’s kick down the back straight and became hopelessly boxed. He may have gone close to gold with a better tactical run.
In Moscow ’80, he had the misfortune to suffer a stomach bug after running a PB over 3000m before the Games and was run out of the medals after Miruts Yifter kicked past him in the back straight. With nothing in the tank, he pushed himself to his absolute limit, but succumbed to both Suleiman Nyambui and Karlo Maaninka to be run out of the medals.
There was talk that the Master of the indoor mile would win in Indianapolis ’87, but, as mentioned, a mid-race mishap put paid to his hopes. Through all his trials, Coghlan remained resolutely upbeat and positive, never blaming others and he is universally well-regarded by his peers as not only one of the great athletes of his era, but as one of the most popular people amongst the distance running community – in Ireland, the US and all over the world.
Eamonn Coghlan – Post Career And His Legacy:
Coghlan has enjoyed a rich and diverse career away from competitive athletics. He has been a constant presence in Irish public life. Coghlan has been involved in politics, serving in the Seanad Eireann (the Irish Upper House) for Fine Gael for five years (2011-2016).
He has worked for RTE (Radio Teilifis Eireann – the Irish national television network) as a regular panellist on sports programs and, about a decade ago, he presented a documentary on Brother Colm O’Connell, the Irish teacher who moved to Kenya and has coached and mentored generations of Kenyan athletes – with incredible success.
There has been much of Coghlan’s time absorbed in charity fundraising for hospitals in the US and Dublin, and he has most recently been part of a venture capital firm, raising money for small businesses in Ireland.
He has coached many athletes, including son John, who has become the family’s second sub 4 minute miler.
It’s been a wonderful family life for Coghlan also. He and wife Yvonne have raised 4 children. As well as John, Eamonn Jr had been involved in sport, as a golf professional and the others are engaged in various pursuits outside of sport.
Coghlan will go down in history as one of the greatest Irish athletes ever. He won NCAA, world and European titles and broke 5 open world records and two Masters world records. Bernard Lagat is the only man to run faster as a 40 year-old and he was also the man who finally beat Coghlan’s record of 7 Wanamaker Miles. He still holds multiple Irish indoor records and his mile world record lasted for 14 years and was still a European record until this year, when Scotsman Josh Kerr ran 3.48.87 to take 0.91 off Coghlan’s mark.
He was an inspirational figure for the likes of ‘80s stars John Treacy, Frank O’Mara, Marcus O’Sullivan and Ray Flynn. Since the ‘80s, we have seen athletes like Mark Carroll, Alistair Cragg, Catherina McKiernan and, of course, honorary Aussie Sonia O’Sullivan achieve at the highest level. Sonia – another Villanova alumnus, incidentally – has, on occasion, spoken of Coghlan, Flynn, Treacy, O’Mara and namesake fellow O’Sullivan, Marcus, as having been role models for her success. She’s particularly close with O’Mara, who has, unfortunately, been dealing with Parkinson’s Disease for the past decade.
At Runners Tribe, we wish Eamonn the very best for the big occasion.
Eamonn Christopher Coghlan
DOB: 21/11/52 – Drimnagh, Co. Dublin, Ireland
800m: 1.47.78 – 1977
1500m: 3.35.6i – 1981 (3.36.57 outdoors 1978)
1 mile: 3.49.78i – 1983 (3.51.59 outdoors 1983)
2000m: 4.54.07i – 1987 (4.57.66 outdoors 1983)
3000m: 7.37.60 – 1980
2 miles: 8.20.84i – 1985 (8.25.8 outdoors 1978)
5000m: 13.19.13 – 1981
10,000m: 28.19.3 – 1986
Marathon: 2.25.13 – 1991
The author wishes to thank the New York Times, LA Times, Irish Times, RTE (Ireland), BBC, ITV, Runners World, Sports Illustrated and Athletics Weekly.