Ciara Mageean Leads Irish Charge in Olympic 1,500m

July 06, 2024

by Perri Williams

Six Irish 1,500m athletes will travel to the Olympic Games in Paris with the hopes of a nation resting on their backs. Of the six, European gold medalist Ciara Mageean is best poised for a chance of a podium finish although today's Diamond League race in Paris changes perspectives for Sarah Healy as she moved into the number two spot on the all time Irish list as the fastest Irish woman over 1500m this season. Mageean, the current Irish number one holds the national senior record with a time of 3.55:87. Joining Mageean will be the 2023 European u23 gold and silver medalists Sophie O’Sullivan and Sarah Healy. Between them all three athletes have won fourteen medals at major championships. However such meritorious accolades will have little bearing on their positions in Paris. Mageean currently ranked fifth in the world will have the arduous task of challenging four African runners who all have currently recorded times faster than her. Faith Kipyegon (Kenya) the reigning world champion and current world record holder has 3.49:11 to her credit, with Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay having run 3.50:30 in China in April. Her fellow countrywomen Haylom and Weltji both have run 3.53 already this year. Then of course there is Laura Muir (GB) currently ranked number three. The Tokyo silver medalist won’t be waning in her attempt to usurp the Africans from podium positions.

The Irish men may not be as decorated as the ladies, however, competition for the three places on that Irish team were hard fought. Racing across Australia and Europe five athletes sought qualification. Dreams were shattered and made along the journey with Andrew Coscoran, Luke McCann and Cathal Doyle finally taking those three places as their own. Coscoran holds the Irish record at 3.30:42 and is the current world number twenty. Making it through the opening rounds and into the semi-final will surely be at the forefront of his aspirations. We should, however, expect some magic performances from Doyle and McCann – who have consistently demonstrated excellence when it comes to championship running.

The 1500m – or the ‘metric mile’, has been on every Olympic schedule for men since the inaugural Games in 1896. Given the evolution of permitting female participation in the Olympics, it is unsurprising that it took a further eight decades (Munich 1972) for it to appear as a ladies event. Irish men and women have challenged for 1500m Olympic glory throughout its tenure, sadly with limited success. To this day Ronney Delaney’s gold medal in the 1956 Olympic Games remains Irelands only 1500m medal. Since Delaney’s gold only two athletes have come close to medaling; Eamonn Coughlan in 1976 and Sonia O’Sullivan in 1992, both finishing fourth.

We may be undergoing somewhat of a starvation period in terms of Olympic medals; however, Ireland has had phenomenal success at major internationals in this event. The late 1970s and early 80s was a golden period of Irish 1500m and one mile running. Ray Flynn and Eamonn Coughlan – we followed them on the newspaper reports, on the news, on radio. Word filtered back from America of relatives, friends and coaches who had seen them run. We even got the opportunity to see them along with Steve Scott, John Walker and other global greats at the Morton Mile and tracks in forgotten parts of Ireland like Tullylease. As “Chairman of the Boards” Coughlan got just as much billing in Madison Square Gardens as any heavy weight American boxer. And then of course, his countryman and greatest rival Ray Flynn still holds the Irish mile record. Coughlan did of course win gold at the inaugural World Championships in 1983, discarding 1500m in favour of the longer 5000m distance.

Following from and perhaps overlapping the great era of Coughlan and Flynn, was Frank O’Mara and Marcus O’Sullivan. Eamonn Coughlan has won the Wannamaker mile a record nine times and was beaten in 1986 by a young Corkman named Marcus O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan won three World Indoor 1500m titles (1987, 1989 and 1993), setting championship records in 1987 and 1989. He also got second in 1991. Then things got a little quieter. Although Ray Flynn, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Meara and Niall Bruton reached European finals, the medals did not reach them at the finish line. There was a glimmer of hope for future success when in 2001 Gareth Turnbull finished second in the World University Games. That hope too faded. Then came gallant men like Ciaran O’Lionaird, Paul Robinson, Mark Carroll, James Nolan, Alaistair Craig all of whom traversed the world in search of 1500m glory. Robinson came close finishing fourth in the 2014 European Championships. Carroll had to move up to 3000m to feel the silvery threads of a medal around his neck.

Once the East African nations, started to dominate distance running, there was a falling off in many European nations. Despite the lack of success of the men, Irish 1500m running was not stuck in the 1980s/early 1990s. Some of the best female runners in our athletics history thrived over the next two decades.

Sonia O’Sullivan of course is the first to come to mind. Having won the World University Games, Sonia got her first taste of the Olympics in 1992 and finished 4th in the final. Fourth was not a bad place to be for a young O’Sullivan. It put her on the global map. Her 1993 silver medal for 1500m at the world championships in Stuttgart was momentous. An army of Chinese middle-distance runners allegedly reared on beetle juice and turtle blood emerged on the athletics scene, creating a seismic athletics episode of great magnitude. Having been beaten into fourth in the 5,000m by three of Ma Jung’s army, O’Sullivan grasped at a chance of redemption in the 1500m. She succeeded in taking sliver, splitting the Chinese. While Sonia went on to have Olympic and world success, it was at longer distances and thus ended her 1500m major championship journey.

Sinead Delahunty competed at Worlds, Olympics and Europeans and in 2000 came close to a major medal finishing fourth in the European indoors. At the same time Gearldine Hendricken was also chasing her glory, finishing at best 3rd in the Grand Prix final. Freya Davoren, Deirdre Byrne, (to name a few) – all launched an assault on the 1500m. Roisin McGettigan interluded the drought taking a bronze in the 2009 European Championships.

As our senior ladies were endeavoring to emulate the feats of Sonia, back in the junior ranks a little-known athlete called Ciara Mageean finished second in the World u18 800m in Italy. In the same year Mageean won the European Youth festival, recording a personal best of 4.15 for the 1500m. One year later at the World u20 Championships in Canada, seventeen-year-old Mageean moved up to the 1500m to claim a world silver medal, in a time of 4.09, a six second personal best. This followed a few years dealing with ongoing injuries and finally in 2016 an appearance at the Olympics in Rio, where the Portaferry native bowed out in the semi-final. 2016 marked a turning point in Mageean’s career. Two weeks after Rio she recorded a massive personal best of 4.01 for the Diamond League in Paris. Since then, there have been world championships, European championships and more Olympics. Her accolades consisting of a European Gold (2024), Silver (2022) and Bronze (2016) over 1500m. A silver in the 2022 Commonwealth games and a bronze in the 2019 Indoors. Irish women’s 1500m running has steadily being reaching new heights.

Behind Mageean, progression was further enhanced by the talented - Sarah Healy. Healy was a double European u18 Champion over 1500m and 3000m in 2018, a silver over 1500m a year later at the European u20 Championships. Finally a silver in 2023 at the u23 Europeans, where she ceded the gold to Sophie O’Sullivan. Her personal best stands at 3.57:49 from her excellent Diamond League performance in Paris on the 7th July this year.

Paris anxiously awaits these six athletes and we for our part look forward to having maximum participation in an event that is for many the crème of the athletics events. Whether we are yelling at the television, willing them to success or sitting on the golden seats of la Stade de France – Irish 1500m running is on the rise.

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