On 12 August 1984 I was allowed stay up late to watch the men’s marathon at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. We were on a family holiday in the Isle of Man. There was a communal TV for the hotel guests. But there was nobody else watching except my dad and me. It remains a clear sporting memory, John Treacy – “The little man with the great heart from Co Waterford has done it.” They were the words of the late Jimmy Magee to end a sporting commentary to match the occasion.
There have been many superlative Irish sporting successes to reminisce about in the intervening four decades, but that remains one which makes me smile. There was Alex Higgins and Seamus Darby in 1982 in snooker and Gaelic football respectively and Manchester United winning the 1983 FA cup. Those three years (82-84) mashed into one as the foundation on which this then pre-teen would build a love of sport. Treacy’s silver medal in LA though created a lifelong fascination with the sport of athletics. It’s the most natural of sports, challenging human ability and talent in the rawest way.
Athletics like other sports, most notably cycling and swimming, has been tainted by doping. So, unlike many other popular team and individual sports, any spectacular achievement particularly by competitors from certain countries has always been met with more questions than superlatives. But having faith in the process of more rigorous testing in more recent times, along with the absence of any major scandals of Ben Johnson proportions, has helped recreate a confidence that the sport is clean and genuine.
With this benefit of the doubt in mind, there is nothing like watching big championship races. I have been privileged to attend three Olympic Games and numerous other world and European cross country championships. From a spectator point of view, racing is a fascinating and pulsating watch. From a journalistic point of view, interviews with individual athletes are grist for the mill – engaging and interesting quotes of honesty, sometimes peppered with a streak of madness. Because athletes who put in the hard yards of training, isolation and sacrifice would be self-confessed as, “(a bit) mad”.
I remember pinching myself in Beijing in 2008 as I shared a shuttle bus from the airport to our hotel with the rest of the RTÉ crew covering the Olympic Games for there I was sitting beside Jimmy Magee. Work and pleasure became one obsession for the weeks that followed.
We had Eamon Coghlan and John Treacy and Catherina McKiernan and Sonia O’Sullivan and Derval O’Rourke and David Gillick and many more world-class athletes to follow over the past 40-odd years. There has been a bit of a famine in recent years but last week’s European championships in Munich has rekindled an exciting sense of hope among athletic enthusiasts across the land.
Almost out of nowhere emerged a flow from the Irish team of national records, personal bests, finals and of course a silver medal for the brilliant Ciara Mageean and a bronze for Mark English. And the arrival on to the global stage of Israel Olatunde, Rhasidat Adeleke and Louise Shanahan et al brings great hope of a new era in Irish athletics too. This hope needs to be nourished and supported, especially as it is good form at a good time – just two years out from an Olympic Games in Paris that is as close to a home Olympics as we are going to get.
Imagine that children who finished first year in 2019 are this week going into fifth year for what is hopefully their first uninterrupted school year since. It’s a forgotten legacy of a pandemic.