Battling against Ovett: NI duo McGuinness and Lawther recall golden mile era

By John HaugheyBBC Sport NI
Paul Lawther leads Jim McGuinness during a race at the Shorts Track in Belfast during the early 1970s
Jim McGuinness (left) and Paul Lawther (centre) ran world-class mile and 3,000m times in the 1970s which remain Northern Ireland records to this day

Christchurch, New Zealand. February 2nd 1974.

Filbert Bayi produces an astonishing display of front-running as he holds off New Zealander John Walker to win the Commonwealth Games 1500 title. Jim Ryun's seven-year-old world record has been smashed by nearly a second as the Tanzanian sets a new mark of three minutes 32.16 seconds.

Eighteen-year-old Belfast boy Paul Lawther is left awed as he views the performance from the stadium stands a couple of days after running against Bayi in the heats.

Back in Belfast, a 22-year-old Jim McGuinness has to watch on TV after being forced to pull out of the Games because he is in the middle of his final year of maths studies at Queen's University.

A golden age of mile running has just begun where Bayi and Walker will be joined and then superseded by Britons Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe with the strongest of supporting casts provided by the likes of Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan, West German Thomas Wessinghage, US athlete Steve Scott and numerous others.

But the two Northern Ireland men will also play their part.

Jim McGuinness and Paul Lawther pictured in Belfast earlier this month
Jim McGuinness and Paul Lawther competed on the international scene during a middle distance era like no other

'The older we get, the faster we were'

Almost 45 years later, Jim McGuinness and Paul Lawther sit in a Belfast coffee house fondly reminiscing about the old days.

"The older we get, the faster we were," laughs Lawther.

But the truth is these two athletes were of a quality that in male middle-distance terms, Northern Ireland athletics bosses can only dream of today.

Jim McGuinness' Northern Ireland mile record of three minutes and 55.0 seconds set in Dublin on 11 July 1977 remains unvanquished 41 years on.

McGuinness' performance in a race where Walker (3:52.0) and Coghlan (3:53.4) set the two fastest mile times of 1977 left him seventh in the world rankings at season's end.

Eleven months later, Lawther set a Northern Ireland 3,000m mark of 7:49.10 which also remains as he finished sixth in a race which saw Kenyan great Henry Rono set the third of four world records over different distances that summer.

In any other era, McGuinness and Lawther would almost certainly have worn the British vest at Olympic Games and European Championships - with the World Championships not even around until 1983 - but it was not to be.

Unlike today, the option of competing for Ireland essentially was a non-runner for Northern Ireland athletes as, back then, it would have automatically ruled them out of consideration for the Commonwealth Games.

'Ovett in a different league'

If having to battle for selection with greats Ovett, Coe and, in Lawther's case, Steve Cram, wasn't bad enough, British middle-distance running also had other gifted performers such as David Moorcroft, Frank Clement, John Robson and Graeme Williamson.

"The problem was we were always going to come up against these people who were just in a different league," recalls Lawther, who celebrated his 63rd birthday on 22 December.

Steve Ovett recieved the 1978 ports Personality of the Year award from Prince Charles
Steve Ovett was the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1978

"The first time I saw Ovett was when he was running the 400m at the 1972 British Youths Championships in Kirby.

"I was standing beside somebody who told me 'watch this guy in lane eight'. He was dead last with 100m to go but with 50m metres left he was about 10 metres in the lead. He put his arm up in the air and I was thinking, 'this guy is different'."

Looking back on their respective careers, McGuinness appeared in serious contention to earn a 1500m spot in the British team for the 1976 Montreal Olympics after an excellent campaign in '75 only for him to be effectively floored by a bout of anaemia, with Ovett's decision to move up to do the 1500m as well as the 800m not helping the Northern Ireland man's prospects.

"I ran the Olympic trials but came seventh as Ovett, Moorcroft and Clement filled the three spots," adds McGuinness, who made his breakthrough on the British scene by winning the 1973 national indoor title at Cosford.

"I can recall looking back and wondering whether the anaemia was caused by me giving a pint of blood like everybody else at work after the blood transfusion service arrived.

"If you are training hard, you're diluting your red blood cells each time and you must give them time to recover. I possibly didn't. Whatever it was, for the rest of the year I was wiped out."

John McGuinness (centre) talks to Kenyan athlete Wilson Waigwa after the Morton Mile on 11 July in 1977 as race winner John Walker looks on
Jim McGuinness (centre) produced two tremendous runs against John Walker in 1977 including his Northern Ireland mile record which still stands today

McGuinness seventh in 1977 world mile rankings

Barely out of junior ranks, Montreal was always going to be too soon for Lawther but by the following summer, the 21-year-old was finding his senior stride just at the same time as a rejuvenated McGuinness was producing the season of his career.

Lawther started his summer campaign by mixing it with Bayi and Ovett over 3000m at Crystal Palace as his third place - only a second behind the Tanzanian - secured an impressive new Northern Ireland record of 7:54.3.

Four weeks later, Lawther broke his domestic rival's Northern Ireland 1500m mark by 1.4 seconds as he clocked 3:38.8 to take second behind Ovett (3:37.5) at the UK Championships in Cwmbran, with third-placed McGuinness also under 3:40 for the first time as he posted 3:39.7.

But undaunted, McGuinness responded four weeks later at the Morton Mile in Dublin by producing a sensational Northern Ireland record of 3:55.00 which still stands today.

As had been the case in Montreal, Walker came out on top in what proved the year's world lead time of 3:52.00 with Coghlan, after his Olympic fourth place, second in 3.53.4 and fast-finishing Kenyan Wilson Waigwa (3:54.5) pipping McGuinness for third.

McGuinness' performance was put in ever better context by those behind him with young Irishman Ray Flynn (3:55.3) cutting four seconds off his personal best in fifth and Scotland's Montreal fifth placer Frank Clement (3:56.4) and another New Zealand great Dick Quax (3:56.5) occupying the next two positions.

Men's world mile rankings 1977

1. John Walker (New Zealand)3:52.00Dublin (Morton Mile), 11 July
2. Eamonn Coghlan (Ireland)3:53:4Dublin, 11 July
3. Wilson Waigwa (Kenya)3:53.8Philadelphia, 30 April
4. Jozef Plachy (Czechoslovakia)3:54.68Stockholm, 4 July
5. Steve Ovett (Great Britain) - GB record3:54.69Crystal Palace, 26 June
6. Karl Fleschen (West Germany)3:54.72Berlin, 26 August
7. Jim McGuinness (Great Britain)3:55.00Dublin, 11 July
8. Steve Scott (USA)3:55.1Philadelphia, 30 April
8. Steve Foster (USA)3:55.1Philadelphia, 30 April
10. Ray Flynn (Ire)3:55.3Dublin, 11 July
11. Jurgen Straub (East Germany)3:55.34Berlin, 26 August
12. Thomas Wessinghage (West Germany)3:55.45Stockholm, 4 July

"I had a number of sub-fours but none of them were to that standard. If you have one performance and you can say to people, 'I ran 3:55.00' that is something," adds the 67-year-old.

"And to be able to say that it was seventh in the world that year is a nice statistic to throw out."

McGuinness' time left him as the second fastest British miler in history at that moment with only Ovett having gone faster in his 3:54.69 a fortnight earlier at Crystal Palace.

Two weeks later, McGuinness regained the Northern Ireland 1500m record from Lawther with a 3:38.1 clocking behind Walker (3:36.2) at the Mary Peters Track in Belfast, in front of an estimated 10,000 spectators.

Henry Rono set numerous world records but never got the opportunity to compete an Olympic Games because of boycotts
Paul Lawther set his Northern Ireland 3,000m record in June 1978 as Henry Rono set the third of his four world records for different distances that summer

Lawther runs in Rono world record in Oslo

Not to be outdone, it was Lawther's turn 10 months later to be a part of a piece of history as he finished sixth in an epic 3,000m at Oslo's Bislett Games won in a world record time by the in-form Rono.

"The promoter and agent Andy Norman was shouting out lap times to all of us from the infield but the crowd was so loud you couldn't hear a thing.

"I was just running and I could see this guy Rono up ahead of us like a scalded cat.

"It was just incredible. [Suleiman] Nyambui from Tanzania, who was to get the silver in the 5000m at the Moscow Olympics, was in there along with Rod Dixon from New Zealand while Nick Rose, Laurie Spence of Scotland and myself all got national records.

"I finished ahead of Marty Liquori who was a great athlete from America. If you get in the right race and it's eyeballs out, you can get dragged around. Especially when you can't hear how fast you are running."

While Lawther was bang in form in the early summer of 1978, it was a different story for McGuinness as he battled against a calf injury sustained on a trip with a British team to Cuba, which lingered on until the Commonwealth Games in August.

A week after his return from Cuba, against his better judgement, McGuinness was coaxed into running a 2,000m against Rod Dixon at the big summer meeting in Belfast organised by Northern Ireland Athletics chief Les Jones.

"I shouldn't have run it. I finished third. Dixon didn't even win it. Laurie Spence won it and for the rest of the summer I was struggling.

"I qualified OK for the final at the Commonwealths in Edmonton but with the calf, I was always going to be in trouble having to run the final so soon again. On the last two laps, there was nothing there. It was quite disappointing," recalls McGuinness of his ninth place.

McGuinness retires after Edmonton disappointment

That was essentially where McGuinness' athletics career ended.

Having become a management accountant after his degree, McGuinness says a combination of his desire for career advancement, allied to waning enthusiasm for the hard graft of training, made the decision for him.

"I had no problem getting time off work or anything like that but you sensed your career would begin to suffer if you weren't going for opportunities because you were being distracted by athletics."

Lawther did have designs on competing in the Moscow Olympics - and even experimented with the 3,000m steeplechase for a time - but Achilles problems meant he had to sit out most of the 1980 campaign as his hopes of competing at a major championship faded.

It was the latest piece of ill-fortune for a talented athlete who had been forced out of the European Junior 1500m final - when strongly fancied for a medal - after being badly spiked in the closing stages of his semi-final.

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