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Interview: Jimmy Magee

He may be commentating for the past 50 years, but RTE’s ‘Memory Man’ has no intention of hanging up the mic and headset anytime soon.

Magee: Still loving his job.
Magee: Still loving his job.
Image: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

“I DON’T LIKE ‘The Memory Man’. It presupposes that there’s nobody else.

“It’s not right, it’s bloody big-headed crap. I know a lot of stuff but there’s a whole lot I don’t know.”

Although he may be quick to play down his remarkable talent, Jimmy Magee has got a head for remembering facts. Especially sports-related ones. Ask him the first five finishers in the 1954 1500m final and you could bank on him effortlessly rattling them off like it happened yesterday.

When his nickname is mentioned during an interview last week, I enquire about its origins.

“I certainly didn’t come up with it myself,” he says. “There was a programme on the radio back in the ’60s called ‘Beat The Memory Men’. It was on every Monday night around 9 and I was the presenter and also one of the go-to people. One fella did racing, another did show biz, another was general sport and then Gaelic games.

“Contestants would ring up and try to beat them. Of course, they would occasionally beat you but most of the time they were questions that you would know. It must have stuck from there on.”

In terms of covering sport, the 77-year-old has been there, done that, and politely declined to wear the t-shirt in preference for a smart suit.

London will be his 12th Olympics, which rises to 15th when you add in the three Winter Games he has covered for RTE during a distinguished career spanning over 50 years.

And as he will tell you himself, there is nothing more rewarding than finding a profession which gives you butterflies like it is your very first day.

It feels as though I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I was saying to myself going into a stadium at the last World Cup: ‘Imagine that I’m going in here and I’m going to be sitting in the best seat in the stadium and getting paid for it’.”

From an early age, there was never much doubt where his future lied. Magee would watch just about any sport he could find as a child and study the list of competitors’ names forensically.

His parents often wondered why their boy was so fascinated by exotic names from unknown places like Panama or Madagascar. “People would say ‘who cares who won the 400m’, but I did. I cared. I followed the boxing and the athletics avidly and said someday I’m going to do that.”

A few years later, he began working on RTE’s Junior Sports Magazine and could only listen to radio commentary as Ireland’s Ronnie Delany claimed gold in Melbourne at the 1956 Games.

The first Olympics Magee was sent to work at was Munich in 1972.

“They were wonderful but it was overshadowed by the killing of 11 Israel athletes. There were many people who said the Games should be suspended but instead they had a day off to show their respect.

“Other things come to mind, though. There was a Cuban boxer called Teofilo Stevenson (who passed away earlier this year). I was doing the boxing and he won the gold medal. An American fella called Duane Bobite who was the new hope. I reported that he was due to receive $1 million to go pro – not if he won the Olympics, but when he won them. Stevenson took him to pieces.

“The next one in Montreal Stevenson won again. The next one in Moscow, he won again. Then in Los Angeles, he was at his best but Cuba supported the Russian boycott so he didn’t participate.

“He was probably the greatest ever. He had a right hand that would knock down houses.”

As well as playing a supporting role in a number of Ireland’s medal wins (John Treacy – Los Angeles, Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough – Barcelona, Sonia O’Sullivan in Sydney and the boxers in Beijing four years ago), Magee made up one half of the ‘Know Your Sport’ presenting team for over a decade.

Alongside side-kick George Hamilton, he hosted the hugely-popular RTE quiz show on Sunday nights as the country’s best sporting brains put their knowledge to the test.

“I loved it,” smiles Magee. “It started in 1987 and I know that because the prize was a trip to the Seoul Olympics in ‘88.

The winner was a fella called Tom Hunt. Tom was Gaelic footballer himself who played as a goalkeeper for the Waterford inter-county team. Interestingly, he is also the uncle of Stephen and Noel Hunt.

It was very enjoyable. There was talk about bringing it back because there’s a whole new generation of people out there who have never seen it. Myself and George have talked about it but we never seem to get around to it. I might have a chat with him again in London.”

Later this year, Magee will release his autobiography (“I was told there are a lot of funny stories about people I’ve met and that. It’s not heavy duty stuff at all”) but is showing no signs of slowing down and, health-permitting, hanging up the mic and headset isn’t an option.

The London Games may have just started but he has already got his heart set on Rio 2016.

‘We’ve never been so well off’ – Jimmy Magee backs boxers to equal Beijing medal haul

London 2012: Introducing… David McCann

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Ben Blake

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