Alastair Cragg is one of the truly great all time Irish athletes. The national 3K (ind), 5K (ind) and 10K record holder has proven his class once again by qualifying for his second Olympic 5000M final tomorrow. As a further indication of how track athletics has changed over the years, he will be one of two white men in the final.
He had a hard job qualifying and gave an emotional interview to RTE afterwards in which he questioned the direction of his life (http://www.rte.ie/sport/olympics2008/2008/0821/cragga.html). I can only imagine the solitude and hard work required to compete in distance running at the top level these days . Having put in all that hard work it must be difficult to take criticism from former Irish greats and fat-cat media types like Ian O Riordan (who wrote a very scathing and in my opinion totally off the mark article last week, in which he called Cragg a "Loser"). Born in a different era it is quite likely that Cragg could have enjoyed considerable success – his personal bests are up there with or ahead of all the irish greats and would have been well at home in the golden era of the early 80's.
I guess one thing that makes it hard for the fair-weather Irish athletics supporter to connect with Cragg is that he was born in South Africa and has an accent that is more helium-inhaler than celtic brogue. He could have ran for South Africa, USA or Ireland, but we can feel proud that he chose Ireland – due to his 50% irish-blood (both of his mother's parents were Irish) and the influence of his Crossmolina coach John McDonnell. I wouldn't be surprised if the prospect of joining a legacy that included Coughlan and Flynn might have also been a factor. Had he chosen the USA he would doubtless have received much more funding and acclaim in his career.
For me this race will be one of the highlight events of the Olympics, with a truly engaging battle about to happen up front and the legendary Bekele the likely winner. It is going to be very hard for Alastair to claim a medal after the quick race in qualification, but people all over the country should be shouting at their TV's in support of the man, and in appreciation of the massive achievement of qualifying for a second Olympic final in one of the biggest participation events in the world. For him to gain a medal he will need to run the smartest and fastest race of his life to beat 12 out of the 15 men in the final. On paper based on pb's and season performances, he should come 11th or 12th but the race will be run on tartan, not paper! Go Alastair!.