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'They worshipped him' - RTÉ's emotive tribute to the late, great Jerry Kiernan

There were tears in the studio and doubtless tears at home, too, as the legendary long-distance runner was remembered this evening.

Jerry Kiernan (1953-2021) celebrating winning the 1982 Dublin Marathon.
Jerry Kiernan (1953-2021) celebrating winning the 1982 Dublin Marathon.

RTÉ’S FIRST LIVE athletics broadcast without the inimitable Jerry Kiernan on its panel was always likely to hit home, both for his former colleagues and students in the studio for tonight’s European Athletics Indoor Championships coverage and those of us tuning in to watch it from the couch.

And the state broadcaster’s sports department, whose reputation for producing emotionally impactful video montage packages by now precedes it, didn’t waste much time before celebrating the legendary long-distance runner and 1984 Los Angeles Olympian.

The following five-minute tribute to Kiernan aired both on television and in the studio, with a host of great Irish athletes giving their memories of the Kerryman as a competitor, mentor, pundit and person — four areas in which he is known to have excelled. The universal reverence for Kiernan within it is best encapsulated by his fellow Los Angeles Olympian John Treacy, who won silver in the marathon as Kiernan finished ninth: “They all worshipped him. That’s the word I’d use. Loved him and worshipped him.”

“He was fiercely passionate about the sport,” a tearful Derval O’Rourke said on RTÉ’s panel after the tribute had aired. “I think he did the sport so many favours. He made people interested in it so much more than, I think, anyone else I’ve ever met.

The first time I started working here, doing this type of job, he gave me all of his homework, all of his notes, and I think I was afraid to let him down and not cover the sport as well as it should be covered — because it’s such an absolutely beautifully amazing sport, and he lived for that.

“And on top of that, he was wild fun for us. I mean, he’d go from sitting here talking about scandal in the world of athletics to the wine he was drinking to horse racing to how much he wanted the athletes to perform.

“I think as an Irish athlete, coming out the other side knowing that he cared about how I would perform for myself — more than anybody else in the sport — meant a lot. He’s a huge loss to all of us but I think we’re all very proud to be sitting here knowing that we knew him.”

Rob Heffernan said:

Jerry’s was the first opinion you’d look for. ‘What did Kiernan say? What did Kiernan say?’ And I think when you’re young an immature, you could give out about him but then when I got to know him and meet him personally, he was such a brilliant character — and such a tough man; really articulate and well educated, brilliant conversationalist in the room. But his opinion and his passion… He was so honest.

“And then when you got to know him, you’d have the opinion that he was cranky, that he was odd. And he wasn’t. He was just such a good person on all levels — but he understood performance. If Jerry was happy with what you did at a competition, [I'd know] I did okay.

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“He’s left a massive, massive hole for so many people in this country.”

“Rob touched on it, there,” added David Gillick. “When you’re competing, you come off the track and it’s back to the hotel and then you’re thinking, ‘What did Jerry say? What was he moaning about?’ And it’s only when you retire and you step away from the track do you kind of then see his points.

Throughout my career, Jerry would always say, ‘David, move up to 800 [metres], move up to 800.’ He’d say it live on air but he’d also say it to your face. Credit to him because athletics is a small sport but Jerry gave us headlines. He was brilliant.

“Regardless of your level, regardless of medals or qualification, Jerry would give you time. He’d talk to you. It didn’t matter if you were at an Olympic level; he cared about the sport and wanted to see you perform to the best of your ability. He’s a loss to so many people.”

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