A Short History Of Ireland At The Winter Olympics
The Winter Olympics are here. You might say you won't get sucked in, or that curling is stupid, but in a week's time, you'll be an expert on everything ice and snow.
This year, Ireland are sending a team of five to what will be our 7th Olympics. It's not a history filled with medals or glory, but plenty of endeavour and interesting characters.
Balls' Olympic historian John Dodge has a look back over our history at the Winter Games.
Ireland's Winter Olympic debut dates back to the Albertville Games of 1992. It was the culmination of a project started by English born business man called Larry Tracey. Tracey, with both parents from Ireland, had become obsessed with the sport after receiving the gift of lessons from his wife but found he couldn’t ride certain courses as he wasn’t an “international” slider. So he set about creating an Irish bobsleigh team to help him fulfil his own bobsleigh dreams.
Tracey was a former rower and contacted a number of Irish rowers in the summer of 1986. Among them was the Olympian Pat McDonagh and his Neptune rowing club team mate Gerry Macken. The Irish team immediately began racing on the international circuit and had done enough to qualify for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. However 10 days before the games, the Olympic Council of Ireland withdrew the team’s entry. Tracey sought a high court injunction but the judge ruled in the OCI’s favour and the team didn’t travel.
1992 - Albertville
Four years later the Irish team finally entered the Olympic stage with two 2-man bobs competing. McDonagh was joined by another summer Olympian with javelin throw Terry McHugh being the brake man to McDonagh’s driver. They were joined by a team of Macken and former athlete Malachy Sheridan. Tracey was still bankrolling the team and he must have been a proud man as the Irish teams finished 32nd and 38th of the 46 crews on show. Asked would Ireland ever have a competitive bobsleigh team, Macken replied, "it would be like getting a Swiss hurling team to take on Kilkenny, if you want to compare like with like.”
1998 - Nagano
Tracey finally stopped funding the programme after Albertville and Ireland had no representatives at the 1994 games. In 1996, Terry McHugh start approaching athletes he knew to gage support for another run at the Nagano games. Their application for funding was denied by the Irish Sports Council but the Olympic Council backed them, and they travelled to America to compete in the qualifiers in sleighs rented from Prince Albert of Monaco. The squad did enough to qualify two 2-man bobs, and for the first time, a 4-man bob. McHugh was joined by Jeff Pamplin and finished 27th. The team of Peter Donahoe and Simon Linscheid finished 35th. For the 4-man bob, Donahue was replaced by Gerry Power with the Irish lads finishing 30th
The Olympic Council also agreed to fund our first ever skiing competitor. Patrick-Paul Schwarzacher-Joyce (yes, that’s his real name) was born in London to an Irish mother and an Austrian father. He was raised in Austria but competed internationally for Ireland with his first major games being the 1997 World Championships. Schwarzacher-Joyce finished 27th in the downhill and an impressive looking 15th in the combined. He was helped by well over half the field failing to complete both downhill and slalom courses.
2002 - Salt Lake City
The Salt Lake City games of 2002 saw a number of firsts for Ireland. Schwarzacher-Joyce returned, but couldn’t match his 1998 performances. He was joined by our first ever woman competitor with Tamsen McGarry. The Dubliner completed both the Slalom and Giant Slalom, finishing 35th and 46th respectively. In bobsleigh the 2-man team of Peter Donohue and Paul Kiernan finished 26th. They’re still the last men to compete in the bobsleigh for Ireland.
We had our first ever cross-country skier compete. Paul O’Connor was a 43 year old, Cork-born, Mormon living in Utah and he finished 69th, just ahead of Nepal’s first ever winter Olympian, in the Sprint qualification race. He remains the oldest competitor ever in that event.
However the biggest Irish story of 2002 was undoubtedly Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley, 14th Baronet, 6th Baron Wrottesley. The Dublin-born son of British gentry only took up the sport 2 years previously when it was announced that Skeleton would be returning to the games. His playboy lifestyle, not to mention the name, attracted quite a bit of attention but Clifton, as we’ll call him, was the real deal. Having competed fairly well on the international stage, Clifton was aiming for a top 10 finish in Utah. His first run was perfect. He earned a time of 51.07 which placed him in 3rd position, only 0.18 seconds off gold medal position. As the Irish bandwagon kicked off, he entered the second run with a very slender cushion of 0.09s to the chasing pack. Clifton’s second run was the 9th fastest which saw him agonizingly drop to 4th place and miss out on a medal by 0.42s.
As you can imagine, he became quite the celebrity in Ireland with the obligatory appearance on the Late Late Show and the usual weekend supplement profiles. He stayed on with Irish skeletons for a number of years but he wouldn’t compete at another Olympics.
2006 - Turin
Flag-bearer Rory Morrish continued the recently established tradition of Cork-born cross country skiing and finished 87th of the 99 starters in the 15km classical event. Kirsten McGarry followed her sister Tamsen and competed in Alpine Skiing. Her best result was 32nd in the giant slalom. Thos Foley became the first Kerryman to compete at the games when he placed 31st in the giant slalom. Clifton Wrottersley turned from competitor to coach and Ireland were again represented in the skeleton with David Connolly finishing in 20th place.
2010 - Vancouver
Remarkably, Ireland had it’s 3rd different skeleton racer qualify for the 2010 game with Wexford’s Patrick Shannon finishing in 25th place. Scottish-born Peter-James Barron got the quota place for cross-country skiing and finished 91st of 95 finishers in the 15km freestyle event. Kirsty McGarry skied at her second games, finishing 50th in the giant slalom. Former Dublin minor Gaelic footballer Shane O’Connor took the men’s alpine spot and finished 45th of over 100 starters in the slalom.
The Irish women’s team qualified for the bobsleigh event for the first time with Aoife Hoey and Claire Bergin making the transition from triple jumping and 400m running respectively. The team was the subject of a legal challenge from Australia with the Aussies arguing that Oceania should be represented in place of Ireland, the last qualified “world” team. A compromise was reached at the Court of Arbitration for Sport with both teams being allowed compete with Pat Hickey threatening a riot if the Irish team was excluded. The Irish women proved their worth, finishing in 17th place. Crucially, that was 2 places ahead of the Aussies
2014 - Sochi
A pair of English-born skiers took the Alpine spots in Sochi with Florence Bell unable to finish her two events. Conor Lyne fared slightly better. He crashed in the giant slalom but finished 42nd in the slalom event. Jan Rossiter restored Cork’s cross-country tradition and finished 83rd in the 15km classical event. Skeleton remained our national winter sport and Canadian-born Sean Greenwood finished 27th
Sochi saw the debut of Ireland in the snowboarding events. 16 year old Utahn Seamus O’Connor competed for the country of his grandparents and qualified in both the halfpipe and the slopestyle events. O’Connor had a fine slopestyle finishing 9th in the semi-final (effectively ranked 17th overall). He improved that position in the halfpipe, just missing out a spot in the final and ranking 15th overall. He’s qualified for this year’s games too.
2018 - Pyeongchang?
Pyeongchang will be the seventh Winter Olympics with Irish competitors. We're likely to keep on getting a quota place for alpine and downhill skiing but every other spot we get in the games must be earned so it's heartening to see Cork-born Bubba Newton qualify to be our first ever freestyle skier at these games.
The closest we've come in other sports was team curling this year but in general we're reliant on the diaspora for our winter sports representatives. Who knows what Beijing 2022 will bring?