Chairman of the Boards

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World-famous athlete turned politician; Senator Eamonn Coghlan chats to Shane Hannon about running, the lure of performance-enhancing drugs, Olympic agony and life in Leinster House.

Growing up in Drimnagh in the south of County Dublin, Eamonn Coghlan played every sport he could. But being an average soccer or Gaelic footballer simply didn’t appeal to him. He decided to join his local athletics club, and never looked back. “The very first day I ran a mile race and I won. Luckily from the very beginning I was hooked. It was kind of me making a statement about myself, that I was good at something.” It was this fervent and unwavering desire to be more than merely average which would lead to him becoming one of this country’s greatest ever sportspeople.

Coghlan was dubbed by many the ‘Chairman of the Boards’ and ‘Master of the Mile’ for his consistent success on the American indoor circuit (he won the Wanamaker Mile at Madison Square Garden seven times, a record which stood until Bernard Lagat won his eighth in 2010.) Coghlan was offered a scholarship in 1971 to the prestigious Villanova University, located in a suburb northwest of Philadelphia. And before he himself graduated from that institution with his degree in Marketing and Communications in 1976, he was already making a big name for himself in the athletics world, with the help of legendary coach Jumbo Elliott. Coghlan speaks highly of his influential coach, who he remarks “had an uncanny ability to recruit athletes in. He brought some of the best athletes in America, who happened to be some of the best in the world, into an environment that was conducive to us supporting one another.” In his mind it is no wonder Villanova became almost a mecca for Irish athletes, “Villanova is a great academic institution, so a combination of academics and athletics makes Villanova a very attractive place for a student to go.”

Perhaps the highlight of Coghlan’s running career came at the World Championships in Helsinki in 1983, when he won gold in the 5000m. The then 30 year-old Coghlan, third at the bell, overtook the leader with 120 metres to go and clenched his fist in an act not just of celebration at the achievement, but as a mark of thanks to his father and two of his most influential coaches, Jumbo Elliott and Gerry Farnan, all of whom had passed away in the previous 18 months. Coghlan’s victory would have been all the more sweet considering what he saw as his Olympic ‘failures.’ He twice finished fourth in the Olympic Games (1976 in Montreal in the 1500m and 1980 in Moscow in the 5000m), before missing the LA Games in 1984 through injury and being eliminated in the semi-finals in Seoul in ’88. The pressure on Coghlan however was immense, “I regarded fourth as a big failure because my ambition was to win. People in Ireland regarded it as a failure too because of their expectations and belief that I could win.”

Coghlan was among the first breed of runners to run well into their thirties, and after a brief retirement he decided to attempt to become the first person over the age of 40 to run a sub four-minute mile. Coghlan wanted to go out on his own terms, and did so when, at the Harvard University indoor track in 1994 aged 41, he achieved that goal. “I always believed I could win an Olympic gold medal. And when I didn’t fulfil that dream I kind of retired unfulfilled so going back to try and become the first guy to run the sub four-minute mile at 40 was going to become a milestone in our sport, similar to Roger Bannister becoming the first guy to do it in 1954.”

Coghlan says for a lot of athletes self-doubt begins to creep in when performances aren’t up to their usual standards, and that’s when performance-enhancing drugs come in. Many athletes have ruined their reputations because of their drug use, and Coghlan says the temptation was indeed there. “When you lose your confidence in your ability, when you lose your belief in yourself, you’ve got to turn somewhere else for aid and that’s where the danger is.” He even went so far as to get a prescription, without really knowing what the drugs even were. Fortunately, his guilt got to him and he threw it out.

In May 2011 Coghlan’s life took a surprising turn when Taoiseach Enda Kenny nominated him to Seanad Éireann, becoming one of a lengthening list of sportspeople who delve into the world of politics. When asked what he brings to the Seanad he speaks of his ‘Points for Life’ initiative, which stresses the importance of physical education in school-age children. Coghlan thinks children’s progress in P.E. should be monitored and measured just like it is in other core subjects. “I’m trying to empower teachers to deliver a P.E. programme in schools where they would see and get instant feedback on a student’s ability to improve.”

Last October a referendum on the future of the Seanad passed narrowly, with support for its continuation squeezing through on a 51.7% to 48.3% margin. In terms of what he would say to those who feel the Seanad is unnecessary Coghlan thinks “the institution of the Seanad provides a very important role in questioning bills and legislation going through. In terms of how people are elected to become senators, that’s another debate altogether.”

With regards to his future plans, Coghlan is comfortable in Leinster House and plans to see out his term in the Seanad through to April 2016. “With regards to political ambitions, I like it in here and would like to continue. Whether that role continues as a nominee of the next Taoiseach, through the normal county council Seanad nominations, or to go for local elections in 2016, remains to be seen.”

Whatever the future brings for Eamonn Coghlan, if it contains a fraction of the excitement of his past there will be chapters to add to his book. Eamonn Coghlan – Chairman of the Boards, Master of the Mile.

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