Jerry Kiernan has died. It's a terrible day for Irish athletics and Irish sport. Kiernan was a teacher, coach, and evangelist for running. Tributes have poured in today from peers, colleagues and former students who knew him well. For this writer, the occasional sight of Kiernan jogging around Ballsbridge or coaching runners at the track in Sandymount in the scorching sun was proof of a burning love for running.
Many will know Kiernan primarily for his TV punditry, where he was always box office, despite the fact he was analysing a sport that few people cared for. We live in a woebegone media landscape built on bad takes. Kiernan was a maverick pundit from the time before takes. He called things as he saw it. You can make the case, unlike some of his more newsworthy former peers at RTÉ, that Kiernan was actually the perfect pundit.
Kiernan had the chops
Any truly great pundit needs to have achieved a high-level success in their sport. Kiernan finished ninth at the Marathon in the 1984 Olympics. He ran a sub 4 minute mile. He won the Dublin marathon at age 39. After retirement he became a successful coach of elite distance runners, most notably Ciara Mageean. He understood the physical and mental torture of elite distance running, which made him a perfect person to speak about the sport on TV.
Here's one of the times where you saw Kiernan the coach and Kiernan the pundit.
'Oh, jeez! That was closer than I thought!' Ciara Mageean reacts to her 800m win alongside her coach Jerry Kiernan. pic.twitter.com/3qd2KnJQQL
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) July 23, 2017
Kiernan had a great rapport with his presenter
A pundit is only as a good as his or her presenter. Kiernan often had a warm, if mischievous camaraderie with Bill O'Herlihy.
Kiernan never shied away from controversy
Whether he was calling out RTÉ, dopers, nationality dopers, the GAA or rugby, Kiernan could be ruthless.
Click the tweet to see Kiernan scorch Yasemin Can, per example.
Sonia O'Sullivan & Jerry Kiernan discuss Yasemin Can, the Kenyan-born athlete who won 10,000m European C'ship goldhttps://t.co/71EWF7RYgY
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) July 6, 2016
Kiernan had a low threshold for bullshit but he didn't court controversy
Kiernan was different from RTÉ's other controversialists in that he wasn't a populist or an entertainer. He called a spade a spade, and if feelings were hurt along the way, tough. You could make the case that, unlike Dunphy or Brolly, Kiernan was afforded the luxury of cover because athletics was rarely on television, and few people watched enough of it to have strong opinions. Still, Kiernan never seemed interested in controversy for its own sake. He was just honest.
Most importantly, Kiernan spoke as a fan
The best sports pundits do more than educate: they enliven. They make you remember why you watch sport in the first place. Kiernan had a well-earned cynicism, but he never lost his love for athletics. You couldn't help but be excited about whatever Olympics long distance race RTÉ was showing if Kiernan was on analyst duty. Sure there you'd always watch with the hope he'd lose the rag, but on a famous night for athletics, like when Rudisha broke the world record in 2012, Kiernan made the sport feel bigger than it was. His love for the sport felt undiminished.
Kiernan is absolutely brilliant in breaking down Lagat v El Guerrooj at the 2004 Olympics. 'Lagat didn't want to win,' he says boldly.
He will be missed.