Paul McKee of Ireland winning the men's 400m semi final (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Ireland a Nation of Sprinters?

It may seem unlikely, but that’s the way things have been looking this weekend at the 9th IAAF World Indoor Championships after Paul McKee’s stunning 46.24sec Irish record in winning his 400 metres semi-final, to be joined in Sunday’s eagerly awaited final by his teenaged team mate, David McCarthy.

The best any Irishman had ever managed in this event previously was a modest fifth place in a heat 18 years ago. Now, on St Patrick’s weekend, one-third of the finalists will be from the Emerald Isle.

McKee and McCarthy’s emergence is the latest manifestation of a subtle transition for Irish athletics. A country with a proud tradition of distance running, including the likes of such champions as Eamonn Coughlan, Ray Flynn, Catriona McKiernan, John Treacy and Sonia O’Sullivan, has in recent years begun to unearth talents at shorter distances through athletes such as Susan Smith and TJ Kearns. “This latest generation of sprinters definitely owe a debt of gratitude to Susan and TJ,” according to Greg Allen, the athletics commentator for Irish state radio RTE.

As well as McKee and McCarthy this weekend, Ciara Sheehy, Paul Brizzel and Gary Ryan at 200 metres, and Derval O’Rourke at 60m Hurdles, all progressed to semi-finals against world-class opposition. And Peter Coughlan and Emily Maher, two stalwarts of the Irish team, have given this indoor season a miss.

McKee’s time makes him the fastest qualifier for Sunday’s 400m final jointly with Daniel Caines, the defending champion from Britain. In his semi-final a few minutes later on Saturday, McCarthy pulled out the run of his young life to ensure his place in the world’s top six.

The beaming smile appeared on McKee’s face two full strides before the finish as he realised what he had achieved, while behind him former world indoor champion Jamie Baulch and Daniel Batman, from Australia, clattered into one another off the last bend as fatigue reduced their legs to jelly in the final yards.

Such is McKee’s surprise at even reaching the final, that before his semi, the 25-year-old Beechmount Harrier had not even bothered to check at what time the biggest race of his life is to be run today.

“That’s a bit more like it,” he said.

Indoors, on the tight 200-metre track where the runners can break from their lanes after less than a circuit, the 400 metres often resembles the rough and tumble of the chariot race from the Hollywood movie Ben Hur.

McKee, a Belfast schoolteacher, had learned his lessons the hard way in Friday night’s heats. “I set off too fast, I almost set a PB for 200, and I got chopped by the Spaniard, so I thought I would try to save my energy by running in lane two: go the extra couple of metres for a smoother run.”

The tactics paid off with huge dividends, “It feels so much easier when you run smooth,” McKee said.

“This is my first indoor season, so I’m still learning. If you can learn enough to get into the final, then why learn any earlier?”

If McKee’s performance was a little surprising, then 19-year-old McCarthy’s status as a World Championship finalist rates as a complete shock, but was accomplished with some maturity and ease.

“I went out as fast as I usually go,” said the Celbridge athlete, though being drawn in the same semi-final as Caines, fancied American Tyree Washington, plus the former European indoor champion Marek Plawgo and David Canal, Spain’s European silver medallist outdoors, meant that he went through the bell only fifth of the six runners.

McCarthy made steady progress through the field on the second circuit, and off the final bend had too much strength for Canal and Plawgo as he chased home Caines and Washington in a lifetime best 46.61. “Unbelievable,” said the talented all-round athlete who has won Irish junior titles at 800, triple jump and multi-events as well as his favourite 400m.

With such talents as McKee and McCarthy, Irish sprinting is going places, and fast.