Eamonn Martin: My pride at making three Olympics in a row
FOR most athletes reaching one Olympics would be special, getting to two even more so, but to make three Games would be, well, beyond a dream.
But that’s exactly what Eamonn Martin did between 1984 and 1992 during which time he reigned supreme as Britain’s number one distance runner.
“I look back now proud to have got to three Olympic Games and to have made finals,” said Martin.“I wish I had made a bit more of them, but I don’t have too many regrets.
“You look at the number of athletes that have been to three Games and there aren’t too many – and there certainly aren’t too many distance runners who have done that.
“So it’s a fairly unique achievement and I’m proud to have done it and also proud to have won three Olympic trials in a row to make those Games.”
Martin – who competed for Basildon AC and lives in Langdon Hills – is probably best remembered by the general sports fan for his London Marathon win in 1993.
He remains the last Brit to have won that title, but before that he had carved out an illustrious track career which included not only three Olympic appearances, but also a Commonwealth gold medal over 10,000m in 1990 and a British record over the same distance set in Oslo in 1988.
His Olympic career began as a 24-year-old in Los Angeles in 1984.
After stepping up from 1,500m – where the likes of Steve Ovett, Seb Coe, Steve Cram et al were dominating nationally and internationally – Martin had established himself as the country’s number one 5,000m runner a year ahead of the Games.
And it wasn’t as if the standard of domestic athletes in the 5,000m was too shabby in those days either.
“When I won the Olympic trials in 1984, the top 10 Brits all went under 13m 30s,” recalled Martin. “That shows you the depth was pretty good in this country then. I was at the top of a very good pile.”
The previous year Martin ran at the first ever World Championships in Helsinki, getting knocked out at the semi-final stage.
But that apart, he had little experience of facing the gruelling task of racing the 5,000m in a major championships, which, in those days, meant three races in four days.
“You don’t really get many opportunities to run three rounds,” said Martin. “You don’t have three races in four days anywhere else.”
Martin had come into the Games in good form. He had wintered well, winning his first national cross country championship that year, won the trials and won a couple of races in California before the Games began.
And he successfully navigated his way through the first two rounds of the 5,000m (running 13m 46s and 13m 41s) to make an Olympic final on his Games debut.
But the final proved a step too far with Martin finishing in 13th place in 13m 53s.
“I had a real go in the final. It was a great experience and I came away thinking ‘this is a stepping stone’,” said Martin.
“But it’s how do you keep yourself motivated and free of all the problems to make sure you keep getting to Olympics?
“That’s why I say that whenever you get an opportunity, you need to grab it because in athletics, with injuries or form, you never know when it’s going to come around again.”
Martin, actually, didn’t keep himself clear of injuries.
For much of the next couple of years he battled a nagging Achilles’ injury and it wasn’t until 1987 that he was back racing consistently again.
And by the time 1988 came round he was in the form of his life.
His form was so good, in fact, it proved to be his biggest problem.
On July 2 that year, Martin’s coach, the late Mel Batty, got him into the 10,000m at the Bislett Games, Oslo.
It would be Martin’s first race over the distance and originally designed to add a bit of endurance background to his 5,000m training.
But after 27 and a bit minutes of running that all changed.
Martin sensationally won the race and smashed the British record in the process, winning in 27m 23.06s.
Suddenly the goal-posts had changed.
“I was still keen on doing the 5,000m at the Olympics, but all of a sudden I was ranked number one in the world and had been elevated to the position of one of the favourites for the 10,000m,” said Martin.
“I think everyone got carried away, Mel got carried away and possibly I did too.
“Looking back, I really should have gone for the 5,000m only. But you make a decision and have to stick by it.
“That year I won a lot of big 5k races on the international circuit, I won the overall Grand Prix award for middle-distance runner of the year, so I had the form. But it was such a tough schedule at the Olympics. It was 10,000m heat Friday, final Sunday. Then 5,000m heat Monday, semi-final Tuesday and final Thursday. It was really, really tough.”
Martin got through to the 10,000m final relatively easily, but his dreams started to unravel from that point on.
After losing touch with the leaders in the final, Martin made a strategic and brave decision to drop out and save himself for the 5,000m to come.
Unfortunately, that plan backfired.
“In the 10,000m final, the leaders got away and I was running around thinking, ‘I have got a 5,000m heat tomorrow and I’m getting hammered here’. “So I made a decision to save myself and see if I could pull something off in the 5,000m.
“I got criticised for doing that by some people, but I was not getting anywhere.
“But then the 5,000m came round. I got through the heat but got knocked out of the semi-final. It was my fourth race in six days. It was gruelling and I can remember my hamstrings just being so tight.
“It was a very disappointing Games for me.”
Martin bounced back from that disappointment by winning his Commonwealth gold medal in New Zealand two years later.
But he was to face disappointment once again at what proved to be his third and final Games in Barcelona, where this time he ran just the 10,000m.
“I won the trial in Sheffield in 1992 and got my place at the Games and was really looking forward to it,” he said. “I remember having to go to the dentist for my Olympic medical and they drilled my tooth and I ended up getting an infection that I was never able to shake off.”
Friends and training partners noticed the effect the infection was having on Martin, but he was determined to make the starting line in Spain.
But sapped of energy because of the infection, he finished down the field in his heat and did not make the final.
“A month or two after the Games I went to see the Olympic doctor and he diagnosed the infection as having got into heart muscle,” recalled Martin. “That explained things.”
“I’ve got really bad memories of Barcelona. It’s a shame because it was such a great Games.”
Martin, of course, was to recover well enough to go on to achieve what has become his most well known feat a year later – winning the London Marathon.
That kick-started a marathon career that also included a win in Chicago in 1995 and which almost saw him make it to his fourth Olympics.
“I ran so well in Chicago in 1995 there was actually a glimmer of hope that I might make the 1996 Games in the marathon,” he said. “But I didn’t run too great in London in 1996 and they picked the team off that.
“It would have been amazing to have gone to four.”
But Martin, now 53, is more than content with his three Games experiences and admits, every now and then, memories from those times come flooding back to him.
“Every now and then things do pop up in your mind from the Olympics, like life in the village. I loved being in the village, but it’s a very surreal life.
“I think back to walking into the Coliseum in LA, and the Olympic stadiums in Seoul and Barcelona. Moments like that stay with you. It gives you great experience that you can take with you into all walks of life and particularly, like I have done, if you go into coaching.”
Martin now coaches two of Essex’s most talented athletes – Basildon AC’s international middle distance runner Gemma Kersey, 20, and Southend AC’s Adam Hickey, 24.
And he says coaching one, or even both of those two athletes to an Olympics would see his athletics life “come full circle”.
“To try to get someone in shape for an Olympics would be an exciting challenge and something I’d love to do,” he said.
“I’ve been coaching Gemma since she was 17 and knowing her as I do, her aim will be to get to the next Olympics. And Adam has got bags of ability.
“I would love for both of them to share the same experiences I did.”