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Olympics with no crowds, not recognising Wozniacki in Rio and 'a weird hatred of bananas'

Thomas Barr also discusses adjusting to lockdown and current drug-testing procedures.

Irish athlete Thomas Barr
Irish athlete Thomas Barr
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

HERE’S THE TRADE-OFF a see-saw in his psychology that can go either way on any given day.

For Thomas Barr, there are mornings where he skips down the stairs and relishes the thought of lifting weights in his living room. Then are days where the Olympic finalist, quite frankly, couldn’t be arsed.

“Some days I’m 100 per cent, and some days I’m barely even wanting to get out of bed: lazy, unmotivated, lethargic and not in great humour,” he says. “When we have no short-term or middle- term goals and the long-term goals are this time next year, motivation is definitely rock-bottom.”

In those moments when the pendulum of this pandemic swings him to a dark place, he falls back on old habits.

“That’s where discipline takes over. Motivation is out the window but it’s that discipline that keeps you going.”

He’s not going to pretend he has it hard. His grant from Sport Ireland will still hit his bank account this year, as will payments from sponsors like New Balance and Red Bull, but Barr has long been aware that he feels crankier during his end-of-season break from training.

“Because we all have more time to think, we all have more time to overthink,” he says.

The easiest way to keep that feeling at bay is with a daily dose of endorphins.

And so, at the house in Limerick which he shares with several other athletes, the living room has been turned into a gym. There’s a treadmill, a squat rack, barbells, dumbbells – just about everything he needs to keep on keeping on.

He does sprints on the road outside and hill reps on a nearby green.

“I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to be idle, but because we have no real idea of when we can compete again, it’s just maintaining.”

In his spare time he works on renovating a house he bought last year and before you ask the answer is no, he hasn’t joined the banana-bread-baking brigade: “I have a weird hatred of bananas.”

What does he miss? The way training used to double as a social event.

“It’s always savage craic,” he says. “But there’s bigger things these days.”

thomas-barr Irish athlete Thomas Barr Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Things have been different since March, ever since the Olympics were wiped off this year’s calendar.

The Europeans in Paris – scheduled for August – soon followed suit and Barr is now left knowing that the only way he will compete this summer is in a domestic setting, likely without much of an audience.

“It would be very hollow,” he admits. “I don’t know would I like to compete in an empty stadium. I’d definitely be open to it if it was a possibility but I wouldn’t get the same feeling. I’d be just as well to go down the track here and bust out a time trial. I’m not pinning my hopes on any competitions this summer.”

He was in favour of the decision by World Athletics to suspend Olympic qualification until December mainly due to the lack of drug testing during the pandemic. “It discourages people from wanting to take advantage,” he says.

Barr still has to notify Sport Ireland of his daily whereabouts but it’s been a couple of months since he was tested: “With social distancing, someone taking your blood is not going to be able to keep two metres from you.”

The Tokyo Olympics are slated to start in July 2021 but last week Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, warned that if the virus isn’t contained by then the Games “will be difficult to pull off” and could be cancelled.

Since then two Japanese infectious disease experts cast further doubt. “It’s going to be tough to hold the Olympics,” said Norio Sugaya, a member of the World Health Organisation’s advisory panel, who suggested that while the coronavirus will likely be under control in Japan, the same may not be true in other regions.

There is also the possibility of the Games taking place behind closed doors, something that wouldn’t exactly float Barr’s boat.

“If it came to it, that is obviously the best of a bad situation but the crowds are part and parcel of the Olympics. It gives me an adrenaline rush when you walk out and whatever event is on before you, the crowd is going absolutely electric and you can absorb that energy. It’d be really difficult to get excited on the day of a race without that.”

He thinks back to 2016 – how he shot to fame by finishing fourth in the Olympic 400m hurdles final. Veterans of the Irish team had few good things to say about the Rio Games but for Barr, that first time will remain magical. “I was completely blown away by it,” he says. “It took a long time to come down off that high.”

It was the vastness, that utopian meshing of various nationalities, something that now feels such a distant memory. One of the funnier moments for Barr was sitting in the dining hall in Rio with fellow athlete Alex Wright and team coach Ray Flynn when they were joined by tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.

“I am not a sports fanatic, I don’t really follow sports,” admits Barr, before taking up the tale.

“This tall, blond Danish girl comes up to the table and she said it was her last day in the village and that she said she didn’t have a Team Ireland badge yet, so would we mind swapping?

“We said we didn’t have any but we could go get some and she said ‘it’s okay, don’t worry.’ We asked her how she did, she said she got knocked out and that she had to get home now for the (US) Open. I had no idea who she was or what she was talking about.”

They shot the breeze at considerable length over lunch and then, as she was leaving, Flynn joked to Wozniacki that she should give her number to one of the Irish lads, an offer that was politely declined.

“I dated a Northern Irish guy before,” she told them. “It didn’t work out.”

Wright had been the only one of the Irishmen to recognise Wozniacki and Barr could only laugh as he pulled up her Twitter account, realising she had two million followers.

When Barr looks back on Rio, it conjures up memories that have only been enhanced over time:getting wind of the mania back home as hundreds gathered around screens at his training base in UL or his home in Dunmore East, Waterford. He came up short of a medal by five hundredths of a second but his fourth-place finish brought him everlasting pride.

“I’m in no way bitter at not having pushed on that little fraction of a second,” he says.

thomas-barr-on-his-way-to-finishing-fourth Thomas Barr on his way to finishing fourth at the Olympics Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The first truly major medal of his career arrived two years later, Barr finishing third in the European 400m hurdles final in Berlin. That night he was carried high by Irish fans outside the stadium and in these humdrum days of purgatory, it’s the thought of more moments like that which sustains him.

“There’s nothing like a major championships where anything can happen to anybody, the whole country gets behind it and that momentum, I thrive off,” he says. “That’s what I live for.”

Originally published at 10.56

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Cathal Dennehy

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