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Irish Olympian Barr: 'There’s no point in worrying about what you can’t control'

The Waterford man on all things Tokyo as uncertainty reigns over the rescheduled Games.

THOMAS BARR IS fully focused on this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The never-ending uncertainty and doubts amidst the pandemic will not become a distraction for the Rio Olympian, the Waterford man who finished fourth in that 2016 men’s 400m hurdles final.

tom barr Thomas Barr was speaking as ambassador for the Irish Life Health Family Mile Challenge. Source: SPORTSFILE.

Currently in Sweden as he gears up for this evening’s Göteborg Friidrott Grand Prix, his second competitive race on the circuit after a decent start at the Diamond League Doha on Friday, Barr makes that clear with each and every word he utters.

Himself and Lizzie Lee were speaking at launch of Irish Life Health Family Mile Challenge yesterday, Barr present on the Zoom call through Lee’s preceding interview. 

As the Cork 41-year-old runner gave her outsider’s perspective of the Games going ahead; how she feels sorry for the athletes amidst the uncertainty, and how their resilience shines through as they block out the noise; Barr is in his own world for the most part.

“Every time now Tom Barr puts on his spikes, he is thankful and that is on top of the Olympics,” she says at one point. He nod along.

“I hate when people talk about silverware in advance,” she adds at a later stage. “The athletes are doing their absolute best and Tom Barr is going to give it absolutely everything he can.” Again, he nods, with a smile breaking across his face.

That’s put to him in his own interview; the learnings of lockdown, good and bad, and their importance going forward.

“I know that I’m stubborn and I’ve learned that over a couple of years now,” Barr grins.

“I keep getting told that I’m stubborn and while I didn’t like to hear it at the start, I think that same stubbornness feeds into a determination to try and be better. I like to think anyway that they feed into each other. That’s something that I have, that determination and a bit of resilience.

“One of my key strengths is that I’m easy going. I try to roll with the punches.”

That, he — and we all — have had to over the 15 months or so. 

“While everyone was in a negative headspace and athletes in particular, I tried to just put a positive spin on it,” he continues. “I’ve learned that, through injury really and through all the terrible days as an athlete that there’s no point in worrying about what you can’t control. It’s about controlling the controllables.”

With that in mind, he’s working towards his Olympic goal; again, the 400m hurdles.

Recently, he was part of the 4x400m mixed relay team that qualified for the Games — “it was amazing, just talking about it gives me goosebumps” — but an unfortunate timetable clash will likely prevent him from lining out in that event in the Japanese capital.

phil-healy-thomas-barr-sharlene-mawdsley-and-christopher-odonnell-celebrate-qualifying-for-the-olympics-in-tokyo Phil Healy, Barr, Sharlene Mawdsley and Chris O'Donnell celebrate qualifying for the Olympics in Tokyo. Source: World Athletics/Dan Vernon/INPHO

Should all go to plan, that is.

Barr will certainly control the controllables, but almost a year on from the original planned date of the 2020 Games, things remain largely unclear given the Covid situation out there and country’s slow vaccine rollout.

The International Olympic Committee [IOC] and the Japanese government both insist that they will not bow to increasing local pressure to cancel to Games, as recent surveys reflect discontent on the ground.

Barr — who received his first vaccine recently — completely understands the latter.

“Obviously Japan are trying to look after their own population and they don’t want to see resources pulled from their own hospitals to try and facilitate a load of foreigners essentially, coming into the country,” he says.

“I can completely understand their concerns and I do feel we would be somewhat imposing because there has been a huge outcry to say that the locals don’t want the Olympics to go ahead because of those risks.

“But I hope the local organising committee are able to put that at bay and have all those athletes, staff, everyone, literally come into the Olympic Village and pretty much not leave it, not take resources, the local organising committee to supply our own medical resources and everything so we’re not drawing on them.

“I hope an agreement can be made there because it wouldn’t be a particularly nice thing to be going in to almost steal things from the locals as such.”

The big questions roll from there. What about signing the new IOC waiver in which athletes acknowledge they may face health risks or death caused by coronavirus and intense heat?

“The first I am hearing about it is today but it’s nothing new in regards to competing at a major championships. You always have to sign some sort of waiver. In Doha last year, there was a waiver to say, because of the heat and the humidity, that we accepted the risks of competing at that heat.

“As Lizzie was saying earlier, when you’re getting to an Olympics, an athlete’s first and only focus is getting there and competing and wanting to get there almost no matter what.

“I’ll happily sign that waiver. The Covid pandemic is everywhere so I may as well be signing it going out to the shop as going to the Olympics, do you know what I mean?”

thomas-barr-running-in-the-semi-finals-of-the-mens-400m-hurdles In action at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The more-likely-than-not prospect of racing in an empty stadium? (International fans are not allowed, while no official decision has been taken on domestic spectators.) In brief, “It will definitely take away from the atmosphere, but I don’t think it will take away from the performances.”

Barr will hope to get a string of them together over the coming weeks, from Gothenburg tonight — “Phil Healy is out here as well, and she is just beaming ear to ear from running so fast up in Belfast,” Barr nods, hoping to replicate her exploits — to back-to-back World Athletics Continental Tour events in Turku, Finland on 8 June, and Sollentunavallen, Sweden, on 13 June.

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Then it’s home to isolate and train, before the Irish Life Health Track and Field National Championships on 26/27 June, his last race on these shores before Tokyo. 

“I’m heading out the first or early the second week in July to a holding camp,” he explains. “Because the Olympics are so early it doesn’t mean a huge amount of time for competitions.

“In hurdles, trying to get your rhythm is one of the hardest things and that I what I need to find now. I’m nearly there, it is just a matter of cracking it in the right race.

“We have definitely worked a lot more on my speed this year. We have done a lot more hurdling throughout the winter because we knew it was going to be such an early start.

“One of the biggest changes between now and Rio is that I have been able to train consistently without injury for nearly two years. That has been an absolutely massive blessing. As soon as you are injured you are on the back foot whereas at least I am getting in consistent training now, whereas in 2016 I was injured.

“I haven’t run a PB since Rio. In 2019 I was eighth in the World Championship with the virus where I would have been in good shape to try and run a PB. In 2018 I came close in the Europeans but I’m just edging in there trying to get towards that now and to put Rio behind me and move forward again.”

thomas-barr-after-finishing-fourth After finishing fourth in Rio. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

That’s the plan, controlling the controllables and overcoming the mental challenge of travelling and racing through the new normal along the way, with red and green lists ever-changing, along with restrictions, regulations and testing requirements from country to country.

There is always added extras behind the scene, but Covid has certainly added another dimension for everybody.

“It is taking that little bit more stress but I am buzzing to be back doing what I want to be doing considering that it is nearly two years — I did a couple of small races last season but I wasn’t in perfect shape for those,” Barr concludes.

“But it is nice to be back on the circuit now in good shape in the lead up to Tokyo.”

***

Irish Life ambassador, Thomas Barr was speaking at the launch of Irish Life Health Family Mile Challenge.

Parents are encouraged to go the extra mile and be positive role models for their kids by signing up free of charge at irishlifehealth.ie to run the challenge on 26/27 June.

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Emma Duffy

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