Anyone out for a run in The Mall last week who wasovertaken by a deceptively fast man in his fifties should not be too hard on themselves, as it was quite possibly one of Longford – and Ireland’s – greatest ever athletes, Ray Flynn.
Ray, who represented Ireland twice in the Olympics and still holds the Irish record for the mile, was back home to visit his family on the Dublin Road, and true to nature, while here, he used the facilities in the Mall to go for a run.
In a sit-down interview in the Longford Arms, Ray, who now runs America’s number one track and field management agency, said he looks back at his running days with a sense of pride and satisfaction.
And so he should. His CV reads impressively: Two Olympics. 89 sub-four minute miles. A world record in the 4x1500m relay, which still stands. The Irish mile record, which still stands. He also holds the 1000m and 1500m records at his former university in the US.
“Looking back now it’s nice to have those memories. Especially with the Olympics, it’s the greatest platform an athlete can have. At the time, the magnitude of it all doesn’t really register; you’re just concentrating on competing,” he said modestly.
In the 1980 games in Moscow, then just 23, Ray competed in the 1500 metres. He entered the final lap one of six in contention for the four certain qualifying places, but in the dash for the line, the Longford runner struggled home a disappointing sixth. He failed by just 0.7 of a second to be one of the two fastest losers to qualify for the semi-finals.
Four years later, Ray stepped up to the 5,000 metres. Heading to a hot and smoggy Los Angeles on the back of some excellent form, Ray was confident of challenging for a medal. He qualified for the finals with considerable ease, but by the time of the grand final, he admits his legs were gone after seven laps. He eventually finished 11th, in a time of 13.34.50, well outside his personal best.
“There were three 5000 metre races in four days, which is a lot of high level running in a short space of time. Nowadays they only run two. I really didn’t have it in that final; I was out of gas. I don’t know how the others were but they went from the gun and by the third kilometre I was strung out.”
Despite failing to win a medal at the Games, Ray still holds the Irish record for the mile which he set during a world famous race at the Bislett Games Dream Mile in Oslo in July 1982, where he ran the mile in just 3:49.77. During the same race, Steve Scott and John Walker set the American and New Zealand records that still stand to this day.
In 1985, Ray set another record that still stands. In a team containing Eamon Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan and Frank O’Meara they ran the 4x1 mile relay in 15:49.08 during a charity fundraiser in front of hundreds of spectators on a hot August afternoon at UCD.
After finishing his Leaving Cert in St Mel’s College, Ray made the difficult decision to leave Longford at 17 when he headed for the East Tennessee State University on an athletics scholarship. “It was a fully paid, university scholarship to pursue my dreams to become the best runner I could be.”
While a tough decision, he felt there was no other choice in Ireland at the time. “For a lot of young runners now, there are opportunities here but back then there wasn’t. I’m a big advocate of competition. For example, if you are already the best in Ireland, how do you get better?
“American colleges are the greatest breeding ground for the development of athletes bar none. In sport if you are competing against people who are better than you, you get better and eventually you can get better than them.”
Ray is the son of Patrick and Amelia Flynn on the Dublin Road. Although based in America, he visits regularly with his wife of 26 years, Jenna and their three children, Kiera (25), Patrick (23) and Kate (10).
Ray now runs his own track and field management agency, with a number of his athletes competing at the London games. Included on his books are two of the most fancied medal hopefuls, American 200m sprinter Wallace Spearmon and middle distance runner Jenny Simpson.
While he retired from competitive athletics in 1989, Ray still runs to keep fit. So, if he did pass you in the Mall last week, chin up, you were in a race with a world record holder.