It was 40 years ago, at the Jack-in-the-Box Invitational track meet in the San Diego Sports Arena, that Eamonn Coghlan enhanced his reputation as the greatest indoor miler of all time by defeating several of his most distinguished rivals and setting two world records in one race. And yet he expressed disappointment at clocking ‘only’ 3:50.6. “I was hoping to break 3:50”, he said.
As it was, the 28 year-old Irishman broke his own world indoor mile record by a full two seconds, and for good measure lowered New Zealander John Walker’s world indoor 1500m record from 3:37.4 to 3:35.6 en route.
The fast times were assured by the early pacemaking of Phil (Tiny) Kane of Villanova University, Coghlan’s own alma mater, covering the first half in 1:55.3. Steve Scott maintained the fast tempo but was powerless when Coghlan – roared on by a crowd of 11,000 – launched his attack with two laps (320 yards) to go. His prolonged sprint proved too much for Scott, whose American record time of 3:51.8 was also inside the old world figures of 3:52.6 set by Coghlan at this meet two years earlier. Next came Walker (3:52.8) and Coghlan’s Irish colleague Ray Flynn (3:53.6).
It wasn’t until 27 February 1983 that, racing in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Coghlan achieved his sub-3:50 goal with 3:49.78, a record which stood for 14 years and a time that still ranks him fourth on the world indoor all-time list behind Yomif Kejelcha of Ethiopia, Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenyan Edward Cheserek.
The turning point for Coghlan, born in Dublin on 21 November 1952, was winning a coveted athletic scholarship to Villanova, a Catholic university in Pennsylvania, where he came under the skilled coaching of “Jumbo” Elliott. He went as a 19 year-old 4:10.0 miler and developed into one of the greats in the footsteps of such Irish predecessors at Villanova as Ron Delany, the 1956 Olympic 1500m champion.
Previously over-reliant on his abundant natural ability, Coghlan really buckled down to regular daily training during the winter of 1974/75 – and the outcome was dramatic. He cut his best mile time from 4:00.9 indoors to an outdoor 3:53.3, relieving France’s Michel Jazy of the European record. That placed him third in the race in which Filbert Bayi of Tanzania broke Jim Ryun’s world record with 3:51.0 and Marty Liquori, another Villanova product, was second in 3:52.2.
In 1976 he won the NCAA 1500m title in a personal best of 3:37.01 and followed that by becoming the first Irishman to win the AAU (USA) championship. He was by then a legitimate Olympic medal contender but the Montreal Games proved frustrating. In a slow final he was the reluctant leader for much of the way but after being boxed in at a crucial moment he placed fourth in a hectic finish, the race being won by Walker in 3:39.17 (25.1 last 200m) with Coghlan finishing 0.34 sec behind.
He captured his first major medal in 1978 when placing a fast finishing second to Britain’s seemingly unbeatable Steve Ovett at the European Championships, setting an Irish record of 3:36.57 in the process. It was the highlight of his career to date but he was somewhat bitter about the press coverage back home. “I got second in Prague but the big news was that I didn’t win. People don’t care if the best man in the world beats you. You just have to win.”
Following his world indoor mile record of 3:52.6 he uncorked a 52.7 last 400 metres to take the European indoor 1500m title, prompting John Walker to predict that Coghlan would never equal his indoor record in an outdoor meet. “His small stature and quick strides suit him ideally indoors, but it won’t do him all that much good where it really counts.”
Irish miler Eamonn Coghlan in action indoors (© Getty Images)
Coghlan made Walker eat his words during the summer of 1979 as he lowered his Irish record first to 3:52.88, well ahead of fourth placed Walker, and then to 3:52.45, and set other national records at 3000m (7:39.08) and 5000m (13:23.54).
However, the 1980 Olympics in Moscow proved no more fulfilling than Montreal. Deciding to avoid Ovett and Seb Coe in the 1500m, he opted for the 5000m and a superb 3000m victory in Oslo in 7:37.60, the third fastest ever, was a great boost to his hopes. But again a medal narrowly eluded him. He was first to strike for home 300 metres out but Ethiopia’s Miruts Yifter overtook him on the inside 50 metres later and sped to victory in 13:20.91. Coghlan held on to third until the final straight but was passed by Finland’s Kaarlo Maaninka and his 13:22.74 was good only for fourth. Later in the month he reclaimed the Irish record from John Treacy with 13:20.99 and in 1981 won in Zürich in 13:19.13.
Coghlan’s speciality remained indoor mile racing and in 1983 he broke through the 3:50 barrier with 3:49.78 at East Rutherford and in 1987 set a world 2000m mark of 4:54.07 (3:59.4 at the mile) which survived for 12 years. However, it was because of successfully pounding the wooden track at New York’s Madison Square Garden that he was dubbed “Chairman of the Boards”. In 1987 he notched up a record seventh victory in the prestigious Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games.
Meanwhile, the luck of the Irish materialised at last after just missing out in two Olympics. The occasion was the inaugural and highly successful IAAF World Championships in Helsinki in August 1983. He could hardly believe how easy it proved. Although some 12 metres down at the bell, he drew level with the leader on the final bend and proceeded to pull away for so comfortable a victory in 13:28.53 that he was able to take time out with 70 metres to go to wave to his Irish colleagues in the stands. “I savoured every moment of it.”
He bowed out of international competition in 1988 but he still had one more ambition: to become the first man over 40 to run a sub-four minute mile. That he accomplished indoors in February 1994, aged 41, with a time of 3:58.15!
Much later he turned to politics and served as a Senator in the Irish Parliament between 2011 and 2016. His son, John Coghlan, ran a 3:59.32 indoor mile in 2012.
Mel Watman for World Athletics Heritage
Evolution of world indoor records at 1500m and the mile
The IAAF, as World Athletics was previously known, did not officially ratify world indoor records until 1 January 1987, so times prior to that date are considered world indoor bests.
– First under 4:00.0: 3:57.0 Joie Ray USA 1920
– First under 3:50.0: 3:49.9 Gene Venzke USA 1936
– First under 3:40.0: 3:37.8 Harald Norpoth FRG 1971
3:37.4 John Walker NZL 1979
3:35.6+ Eamonn Coghlan IRL 1981
3:35.6+ Marcus O’Sullivan IRL 1989
3:34.20 Peter Elliott GBR 1990
3:34.16 Noureddine Morceli ALG 1991
3:31.18 Hicham El Guerrouj MAR 1997
3:31.04 Samuel Tefera ETH 2019
nb: 3:35.4+ O’Sullivan 1988 not ratified
– First under 4:20.0: 4:19.8 Harold Trube USA 1909
– First under 4:10.0: 4:08.4 Glenn Cunningham USA 1934
– First under 4:00.0: 3:58.9 Jim Beatty USA 1962
3:58.6 Jim Beatty USA 1963
3:56.6 Tom O’Hara USA 1964
3:56.4 Tom O’Hara USA 1964
3:56.4 Jim Ryun USA 1971
3:55.0 Tony Waldrop USA 1974
3:54.93 Dick Buerkle USA 1978
3:52.6 Eamonn Coghlan IRL 1979
3:50.6 Eamonn Coghlan IRL 1981
3:49.78 Eamonn Coghlan IRL 1983
3:48.45 Hicham El Guerrouj MAR 1997
3:47.01 Yomif Kejelcha ETH 2019