Irish Female 400m Running Has Never Been in a Better Place

June 26, 2024

By Perri Williams 

Maeve Kyle: A Trailblazer in Irish Athletics

Tokyo 1964. A world apart from a dystopian Irish nation that still wore the shackles of conservatism, and male dominance in the sporting world. A team of twenty-four men and one woman stepped into the Olympic city where technology seemed more like sci-fi than an urban reality. That one woman was Maeve Kyle, the pioneer of Irish 400m running. Maeve had already taken part in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics in Melbourne and Rome respectively. Tokyo was different – it was the first time the 400m had been added to the programme for women. Effervescent and elegant with a scintilla of optimism in her stride, unknown to Maeve, she was about to open the doors for the future of Irish women’s 400m running. By her own declaration she was a bit of a suffragette in Irish athletics; the first woman to compete in an Olympics (1956 Melbourne) and the first triple Olympian. It was not easy for a woman to be involved in sport and at the same time be subjected to harsh criticism for being so. However, Kyle’s courage to challenge the status quo of a male-dominated world of sport in Ireland was pivotal in not only shifting the sporting and societal perception of women but also paving the way for future Irish ladies to follow suit. Her 400m in Tokyo ended with a 55.3 in the semi-final. Two years later, at the European Indoors in Dortmund, Kyle was rewarded with a bronze for the 400m – the first Irish woman to medal at a major championship. Her personal best of 54.60 sees her name still on the Irish ranking list – at number 52.

We have of course had some great 400m athletes since Kyle. Claire Walsh, Caroline O’Shea, Patricia Almond, Barbara Johnson, to name but a few. Then take Karen Shinkins for example. The Newbridge native who retired from the sport after the Sydney Olympics in 2000 is still ranked at number four on the Irish all-time list. Shinkins sensationalised 400m running with her constant improvements and placings on the European circuit. To run 51.07 back in 1999 was at the time considered pushing the boundaries in Irish 400m running. However, those boundaries continued to be pushed when Kilkenny’s Joanne Cuddihy ran 50.73 on a hot August Osaka night to finish 4th in the World Championships semi-final. Cuddihy was a seasoned competitor on the international stage having competed at several majors. By 2008, she had aspirations of reaching a 400m final at the Beijing Olympics. Fate dealt her the cruel hand of injury. She made the semi-final in London in 2012 and joined forces with emerging Irish 400m runners to compete in the 4x400m relay. The second time an Irish quartet had competed in that event at Olympic level. This was a team that had run several majors since 2010, and perhaps marked the next milestone in Irish 400m running. There was a sense of excitement in Ireland about our team. Running with Cuddihy was Michelle Carey, a 400m hurdler who had clocked a personal best of 52.67 for the flat. Marian Heffernan had run 53.10 and another hurdle specialist Jessie Barr had run a personal best of 53.7. Though there was nothing to substantiate it at the time, this was not just an ephemeral moment of progression, it was the start of a period of sustained amelioration in 400m running.

Rising Stars and the 2012 Relay Team

The relay team of 2012 continued to thrive, as an athlete retired for the first time ever, there were a number available to fill in their shoes and all of them 53 second 400m runners. The u18s and u20s were making European finals. Athletes like Davisha Patterson, Cliodhna Manning, all progressing. A depth was being created that had never before existed. As athletes are being replaced, one team morphs into another and before you know it we are at the team of 2024.

“Irish 400m running has never been in a better place .,..we really are developing depth in the 400” said Sophie Becker last month after she ran her second best time ever in Ostrava. From the individual days of Maeve Kyle and Karen Shinkins a depth in 400m female running has occurred. Ireland currently has three female athletes ranked in the top fifteen in Europe for this event. Great Britain only has two. At the top of the Irish list is Rhasidat Adeleke who has on multiple occasions broken her own national record over the past two years. Yet again at the recent European Champions in Rome, Adeleke set another Irish record, of 49.07, cementing her position at top of the Irish ranking list, number two in Europe and number four in the world. Behind her Sharlene Mawdsley, who has become the darling of Irish athletics is ranked at number two in Ireland and ninth in Europe. Sophie Becker has run the third fastest time in Ireland this year and has a European ranking of 15. The accolades also keep rolling in. The mixed relay team had a bronze from the world relays in the Bahama’s, a gold from the European Championships in Rome. Then of course the ladies 4x400m made the final in the Bahama’s and had that inspirational European silver in Rome.

Adeleke had already come to national attention as a promising 100m and 200m runner and headed to Texas to cultivate her talent further. By the summer of 2023 she accumulated some NCAA titles. Rhasidat then turned professional and finished fourth in the World Championships in Budapest. In Rome she got her first major championship individual medal with a second place in the 400m behind Poland’s Natalia Kaczmarek. It was a race that was considered one of the best clashes of the championships. Kaczmarek ran 48.98 and not only did she smash the forty-eight-year-old record of Irena Szewinska, she also recorded the fastest 400m time by a European this century. Adeleke’s time of 49.07 may have been a new national record and the second fastest time by a European this century, however, her coach stated she was capable of more. They had come to these championships with the intention of adding the Senior title to that of her U18 and U20 European titles. She had after all run an astonishing split of 48.45 when she helped the Irish team to bronze medals at the world relays in the Bahamas in April. Kaczmarek had not run the mixed relay. Adeleke did.

Future Prospects and Olympic Dreams

Joining her on that team was Sharlene Mawdsley. Incandescent, with a demeanor that has wooed a national and international audience, the Newport native was described by Adeleke as having an “engine”, Mawdsley has endeared herself to Irish fans through her ubiquitous relay heroics on the global stage. In the Bahamas where the mixed relay finished 3rd Mawdsley proved she could hold her own against the top athletes like Femke Bol. She has split several sub 50 second 400s as part of various relays. In Rome, Glasgow and Budapest, she had run individual and relay legs, one day after the next outperforming herself, unwavering in her ability to reach further into the bowels of her capabilities. To have two Irish athletes in a European 400m final was not only a first for Ireland but also clear evidence of where we were with the depth of our current crop of female athletes. In fact we had three athletes who gained individual qualification. Along with Adeleke and Mawdsley, Becker surprised even herself as she clocked 51.13 in Belfast last month to qualify.

The team for the Olympics is going to be interesting. Roisin Harrison (Limerick AC) helped the ladies 4x400m to a final in the Bahamas and was also a member of the team that made the final at the World Indoors in Glasgow. As was Bandon’s Phil Healy. Harrison has a best of 52.23 which she ran in Geneva last year. Healy has a best of 51.50 recorded in 2021. Healy chose to race over 200m on an individual level this season with Harrison racing once in Belgium. Based on this year’s ranking list Healy is ranked with the sixth fastest time (53.18 indoors in January) and Harrison is ranked eight (53.74 in Belgium in May). Ahead of them are; Kelly McRory (Tir Conaill AC) 52.72 recorded in Belgium in May, Lauren Cadden (Sligo AC) 52.87 achieved in Spain on the first of June. Then Cliodhna Manning is ranked seventh with 53.66 as she tries to make a comeback after an injury sustained at last years national championships ruled her out of competition until over a month ago. Cliodhna has a best of 52.60 from 2022.

Back in 2012 there were two athletes making the team with 53 second 400s. In 2024 we have eight athletes who have run faster than 53 seconds, with four having recorded sub 52 second 400m. That is depth as it only takes four to run a relay.

At this point we can only hazard a guess as to how our athletes will do in Paris. As the Irish athletes improve their times, so too do those in other parts of the world. Sydney MacLaughlin Levrone has a world lead of 48.75 which she ran this month in New York. Behind her Nickisha Pryce of Jamaica ran 48.89 also in New York this month. Remember Adeleke has split 48.45. Could it be that for the first time in almost forty years, we could see a new world record in the 400m? Globally as well as nationally the ladies 400m is moving into a new phase that we have not seen in a considerable time. The world record is held by Marita Koch of the former East Germany and has stood at 47.60 since 1985.

Koch broke thirty world records in her time while representing East Germany. A nation, whose sporting regime has been enshrouded with allegations of state-sponsored and systematic doping. Evidence of this has been presented repeatedly going back to 1990 when Manfred Hoppner sold confidential documents to Stern magazine in Germany and the news went viral. Koch has never tested positive for drugs and still maintains her times were unaided. With their “I run clean” narrative on their running bibs, can the person that will break Koch’s thirty-nine-year-old record be an Irish woman? In what is currently an unprecedented era of Irish female 400m running, it is not beyond the realms of possibility. After all our 400m ladies are luminaries in the athletics world, inspiring each other and a future generation of athletes.

Image: Perri Williams

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