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'They said we weren't good enough as a nation - we proved them wrong'

Ronnie Delany’s gold at the Melbourne Olympics changed the way the world looked at Ireland.

Ronnie Delany crosses the line to win Olympic gold.
Ronnie Delany crosses the line to win Olympic gold.
Image: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

IT WAS JUST a name; seven little letters, carved into stone yet etched into history. The tourist stood and stared at it, a couple of minutes passing before the chill of a Victorian winter persuaded him to find sanctuary in the stadium museum. There he’d look at Donald Bradman’s bat; an old pair of football boots, a 1937 rugby top.

But he didn’t care. He wanted to go back outside to the concrete pathway encircling this Olympic venue and once again run his eyes over the names on that wall.

As he stood there, a wind came scudding in from the bay, splattering its drizzle across the tourist’s face, making him feel more stupid than wet. Why was he bothered by this list of champions from the XV1 Olympiad? It was so long ago you even had teams called the Soviet Union; Yugoslavia; United Team of Germany; Czechoslovakia; Malaya.

All 151 winners are written in white against a brown marble backdrop; starting with Bobby Morrow, the 100m and 200m sprint champion. Charles Jenkins is on the line below, then Tom Courtney.

The man was distracted, however, by this drip-drip-drip of rain sliding down the marble, stopping just were it said, R Delany (Ireland).

He stayed a little longer, thinking about all the other Olympic cities and stadiums around the world where the engravers didn’t have to double-check the spelling of Delany’s country for their respective monuments.

Six months later, the tourist had arrived back home and was at one of those eve-of-Christmas events where people drink too much and talk too loud. Yet when an elderly gentleman, slim and stately, left his seat to walk to the stage, their behaviour instantly changed.

At 84, Ronnie Delany moves slowly; his hair tinged with grey, his face thinly lined. He wasn’t there to retrace history’s footsteps, instead to present an award for the sports star of the future. Yet even as he spoke warmly about the precocity of youth, the words he said didn’t leave as big an impact as the reaction of those who heard them.

Most people in that room wouldn’t have been alive when Delany won his gold but everyone seemed aware of the debt they owed him, knowing that if he hadn’t have ran that race and beat that field, then that piece of marble in Melbourne would be just like the stoneworks outside so many other Olympic stadiums.

He’s aware of his legacy. “Every day in life, you wake up an Olympian,” he said from stage, drawing applause. Yet when we subsequently meet inside his south Dublin home, his house isn’t a shrine to his ego. On the walls, there are pictures of weddings, grandchildren and graduations. On the floors, there are carpets and rugs; coasters on the coffee tables; homemade brack wrapped in tinfoil on the kitchen shelf.

It could be any grandparent’s house.

But it isn’t.

It’s the home of a man who woke up one summer’s day in 1956 and knew his destiny was to become Olympic champion. He knew other things too, that three of his rivals, John Landy, Lászlo Tábori and Gunnar Nielsen had held world records; that another finalist, Ken Wood, had claimed to have beaten the four-minute mile barrier a few weeks before Roger Bannister had his moment of glory. He also rated Stanislav Jungwirth, a future world record holder and Brian Hewson, the 1958 European champion.

Yet he had a higher regard for himself, a self-esteem borne out of “an idyllic” upbringing; a loving mother, strict but benevolent father, formative years spent in a safe, privileged, suburban home before he won a cadetship to the army. The dream was to be an officer and a gentleman, except the dream didn’t belong to him.

He quit. Eighteen-years-old; aware of how hard it was to find work in post-war Ireland, he left it all behind. “You couldn’t really share your ambition with people in the Ireland of that era, a lot of people thought I was out of my mind,” the 84-year-old says now. “All around me, people were emigrating. Work couldn’t be got. Here I was, in a good, safe job, throwing it all away. I can see why my father didn’t like what I did.

“But it was something I had to do. You see I knew I was good and I don’t want to sound immodest but I felt I could become a great athlete.”

If the departure from the army wrecked his parents’ heads, then his departure for America for this newly invented thing called an athletic scholarship broke their hearts. They tried to talk him round with ‘now look here young man’ chats from the father; tears from the mother.

He neither heard nor saw them.

It was Uncle Frank who drove him to Shannon. By the time they reached the airport, his mother was distraught; saying goodbye to her son for what she feared was the final time. “I didn’t know if I’d ever come back; I mean Ireland was a depressed country in the ‘50s. Cars were rare; jobs were scarce. I thought, right this is me now. I’m out of here.”

athletics-aaa-championships-mens-880-yards-heat-no-2-white-city-stadium Delany in action in London prior to the 1956 Olympics. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

The first thing he noticed about America was the colour, the blue jeans and chinos, crew cuts and converse shoes, motorways filled with brightly painted cars.

The Ireland he left behind was grey and impoverished. Here he was raking in the dollars as a golf caddie; topping the class in marketing and economics; becoming the seventh man to break the four-minute mile in July 1956.

“And that’s when I started to really believe I belonged,” he says.

Still some drama had to play out. In the tired old tradition of bungling sports administrators, Delany didn’t get his Olympic accreditation until the day before he was due to travel. So off he went, flying across America ‘in a half-lit aeroplane’ to San Francisco, training in Berkeley University for a week; the first leg of a nightmare journey.

Hawaii was next but only because something untoward had happened the plane. Down came the Irish priests to bless both it and the team. Onto Kanton Island, the half-way point between Hawaii and Fiji; more engine trouble for the plane, more Irish missionary priests with their holy water.

“They’d heard the Irish team was stuck at airport, so they cycled over, left the non-Christians on the island alone for a day and treated us like kings.” Fiji was next. The priests there were from the Holy Family. “They also blessed us.” 

By the time they eventually reached Melbourne, over a thousand emigrants were waiting on the runway to shower the 12-strong team with the quirkiest of gifts; Delany handed a number plate and teddy bear, too polite to raise his eyebrows at the uselessness of the presents.

In the Olympic village, they broke protocol by raising the largest Irish flag they could get their hands on, all of the team aware of the British Olympic delegate who had fought in vain for the Irish team to be officially known as Éire.

They fended for themselves, the team manager having fallen sick en route. Maeve Kyle -Ireland’s first female Olympian – sewed their official numbers onto their vests. It was a small team but a winning one, five of them medalling.

Yet just one got gold.

***

Clouds draped over the MCG that December morning. Delany woke early; walked to the village cafeteria for breakfast, checking and rechecking his bag to make sure he’d got everything he needed: spare shorts, vest, holy water; holy medal.

He ate alone. Everything had gone smoothly from the moment he arrived in Melbourne, Dublin boxer Fred Tiedt advancing to the welterweight final, Johnny Caldwell, Freddie Gilroy and Anthony Byrne getting bronze. Their successes convinced Delany over and over again that he was on a mission to win gold.

Deliberately he took a little time to himself each morning, saying a quiet prayer, remembering Jumbo Elliott, his coach’s, words. “You can’t be going around bursting with adrenaline days before the race,” Elliott used to regularly tell him. “But race day, well that’s different, that’s showtime.”

Sitting in his favourite armchair, the golden boy is now in his golden years, his arms outstretched to reinforce his point, before he’s up off his chair, opening the sitting room door to remind his wife to bring a spare key before she heads out for a lunch. When he comes back to the sitting room, he’s instantly returning to the 1956 narrative. 

“Emotionally, I start well,” he says of the final. “I’m floating. Ten metres from the front; mentally not using an ounce of energy. I’m alert. I don’t give a shit who is around me. Jumbo Elliott’s words: ‘relax, relax, relax’, they’re all I think about.

“In your head you like to think you are the most beautiful runner in the world; in reality I was not that pretty a runner. Nor was (Emil) Zatopak for that matter. But on this day …” He pauses, searching for the right words. “This day, I’ve no sense of fatigue, nothing to worry about.”

We’re on the third lap now. He’s describing a 64-year old race in about 64 seconds, his eyebrows occasionally raised as he tries to remember whether it was Jungwirth or Hewson who got poked in the ribs; laughing at the official who forgot to ring the bell. “You have one job,” he smiles. Yet in truth, he didn’t even notice. “In my head, I’m in race mode. I’m thinking, ‘right Ronnie let’s go here’.”

But it is Landy who goes first. Big mistake. Hewson, too, has made his pitch for athletic immortality way too early. And then with about 170 metres to go, Delany makes his move.

athletics-aaa-meeting-white-city-stadium Delany wasn't a stylistic runner but was a superb tactician. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“Going around the final bend, I’m passing everyone. Hewson’s struggling. I don’t care who’s there. I’m suddenly in the lead, 80 metres out, maybe it was 90? Who cares? My knee lift is superb; my arms are pumping. I felt so strong.  I want the world to see this young Irishman win.

“Of course, you’re not thinking deeply about things mid-race. You’re just going for it; but after it was over, my instinct as a well brought up Catholic boy was: ‘get down on your knees there lad and say a prayer’.

Beyond that, seeing the tricolour raised, you thought about other things, about our country’s emigrants, about this suggestion that we, as a nation, weren’t good enough. That annoyed me. Of course, we’re good enough. We deserved to be called Ireland at the Olympics, not Éire. Ireland’s our name. I’m proud to say that.”

***

He was 21-years-old and wasn’t to know it but the rest of his life, the public part, would be defined by the three minutes and 41 seconds it took for him to run those laps around the Melbourne track.

Like everyone else, he isn’t immune to life’s cyclical fortunes; the injuries that prematurely ended his athletic career; the chance meeting with Joan and their loving 57-year-old marriage; their four children and 15 grandchildren. “You get on with the rest of your life,” he says, pointing to the initial post-career frustration of “being recognised as the runner, that’s it”.

Yet when he moved into shipping, he wasn’t hired as “the runner” but as a marketing expert. Things had turned. Later he’d become chairman of the sports council, do ambassadorial work for charities; retire from work on his terms. 

Life has been beautiful,” he says. “I’m not wealthy and it was never an ambition to be rich; but I’ve had good health, a loving wife, a beautiful family; that’s the real value of life. I’ve no fear of death. I’d like to stay well and have things to look forward to.”

And yet he’s happy to reflect. “It’s magical that people would still care about something from 64 years ago,” he says.

As he speaks, the doorbell rings. A courier is delivering a package. You watch him open the door and carefully sign the invoice but you don’t see an 84-year-man with an arched back. Instead you see a young athlete, with his idiosyncratic stride, his arms outstretched; the gold around his neck.

Your mind wanders back to the tourist staring at the outside wall of a stadium 10,063 miles away and to the British representative on the IOC who wanted the team to be called Éire for those Games. Delany voiced his objections. “Its Ireland,” he said. “That’s our name.” The world heard what he said.

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