Athletics

"Only In USA Did They Expect Me To Win" - 60 Years Since One Of Irish Sport's Greatest Achievements

"Only In USA Did They Expect Me To Win" - 60 Years Since One Of Irish Sport's Greatest Achievements

It's 60 years since Ireland's last Olympic gold medal on the track. None of our modern sporting celebrities have ever sought to return Ronnie Delany to the Second Captains Good Wall, nowadays the ultimate arbiter of sporting worthiness. But there is no question that Ronnie Delany is one of the greatest Irish sportspeople in history.

In the 1950s, the 1500m ('The Mile') was the showpiece event on the track, occupying much the same status that the men's 100m occupies today.

On 1 December 1956, the Irish public learned that an Irishman had won gold in the Olympics' most important event.

It happened while they were sleeping though most weren't aware of that.

Television didn't exist in Ireland at the time (save for a few absurdly far-sighted or wealthy individuals) and RTE wouldn't be established for another five years.

The BBC World Service broadcast deferred coverage of the race in the morning for the benefit of Northern Hemisphere listeners.

Delany told Balls.ie last year that most Irish people were unaware the race had already been won as they listened to the crackly BBC coverage.

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BBC Radio covered it (1956 Olympic final) so radio could travel the distances. But there was no television but the radio was done. The reality is people thought it was done live. It wasn't done live, it was done some hours after the race but they covered it as if it was live. For the people who listened to it here in Ireland... I had already won the race before they listened in to it but they didn't know that, fortunately. Otherwise it wouldn't have been as exciting.

Delany had been the 7th ever athlete to run a sub-four minute mile but his victory wasn't anticipated in Ireland or the UK. The Americans, however, knew all about the 21-year old Delany

Born in Arklow in 1935, Delany attended the Catholic University School in Leeson Street before heading to the famous athletics nursery, Villanova University in the US. He studied finance and trained under Jumbo Elliott.

In the year preceding the Melbourne Olympics, Delany built up a formidable reputation in the US. On the indoor scene, he embarked on a winning run which would last until the end of the decade.

The respected American athletics magazine, US Track & Field tipped Delany to win gold in Australia, though news of their prediction never reached Ireland.

I was expected (to win) in America. I wasn't expected to win in Ireland because we were not terribly informed on international track and field then. But the Americans had me in the picture because of seeing me running in America. I was the youngest four-minute miler in the world going down to Melbourne. I was the seventh man in the world to run a four minute mile. So, knowing me, the American magazine, US Track & Field, which was the bible of athletics in America, they selected me to win.

My athletics career in America wasn't very well covered here because of the economics of the time. So, for example, my racing in America, where I won 40 races without losing races, was done by Associated Press or United Press, and they (the Irish newspapers) took a feed off that. They never sent anyone to see me run. In fact, only one Irish journalist was in Australia.

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In the Melbourne Cricket Ground that day, Delany sat nestled near the back of the field for three of the four laps. He was 10th heading into back straight in the fourth lap.

On the back straight, he made his move blasting by the competition. With 100m remaining, he passed the badly tiring British runner Brian Hewson to take the lead. He sauntered to victory with German Klaus Richtzenhain and Australia's John Landy taking silver and bronze respectively.

Earlier this year, Conor McGregor boasted of his pride at being the first Irishman on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In fact, he wasn't even the first Irishman on the cover of the magazine in the previous twelve months. Rory McIlroy had been slapped on the front ahead of the 2015 US Masters.

And before that, Eamonn Coghlan, aka the chairman of the boards and the king of the US indoor scene, had graced the cover three times in the 1970s and 1980s.

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And before all of them was Ronnie, the first Irishman to achieve the honour.

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In the late '50s, the Americans were indulging in some fretful navel-gazing about their dearth of success in track & field.

The magazine wondered aloud whether the USA was a second-class nation in athletics. Delany, who hadn't lost a race indoors in the US in five years, was placed on the cover as a symbol of their failings.

You weren't approached then. You were just told you were doing it. I was the leading athlete in the world at 1500m then. I was the Olympic champion and, in the indoor scene in America, I was in what turned out to be a five year winning streak. I had never lost a race from 1955 to '59. And I think the thesis of the article was 'Is America a second class track power?' Which it wasn't. It was just people like myself coming from Ireland were beating them. There was no money in it in those days. You were just honoured when someone came along and asked you.

Read more: Ranking Every Taoiseach In Order Of Their Ability To Piggyback On Irish Sporting Success

Conor Neville
Article written by
Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney

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