Remembering Ronnie Delany’s ‘great day’

Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of Ronnie Delany’s gold medal in the 1,500m at the Olympic Games in Melbourne. His is among the greatest Irish sporting stories ever told, and maybe the most often told. But the charm of a sporting icon keeps it fresh.

SPOILSPORTS AT THE BBC

If you don’t want to know the result, look away now.

Nope. On the morning of December 1, 1956, the BBC didn’t supply a radio version of the standard Match of the Day spoiler alert, when handing over to race commentator Rex Alston. Didn’t take into account that Ireland had surrounded the wireless and was nudging the dial, coaxing away static, hanging on word from Melbourne, though the race had finished a couple of hours before.

The Likely Lads would have been vexed.

“Everyone thought it was a live broadcast, so they were glued to their crackly radios listening to it,” says Ronnie Delany.

“My old teammates from Crusaders Athletic Club got up at seven o’clock in the morning and they were all crouched over the radio. And in the preliminaries to the race, the fellow connecting in and handing over to the race commentary said something like ‘watch out for the Irishman’, something like that.

“And my friend Tony Caldwell always reminds me; he turned to the group of them and said: ‘Ronnie has won, Ronnie has won.’ He said it before the bloody race started.

“To them, it made the joy of my victory better, because they knew, when I took the lead, they knew. ‘Jesus, Delany is going to win.’”

By now, Ronnie had dispatched greetings home.

“God bless you,” read the telegram to his parents. Though he doesn’t recall an emotional reunion.

“I’ve no memory of discussing it with them, but they were proud of me, of course. That was in their posture, in their love of me.

“My brother was a great athlete. Without being rude, the Delany family were accustomed to winning through my brother Joe.

“He was probably the greatest schoolboy athlete Ireland ever had up to that time. He retired at about 19. I suppose, he was bored by it, in a sense. Joe, when I was home that Christmas, he and his wife gave me a beautiful — it must have cost a few bob — photographic book where I could put all my clippings.

“And on the front of it, he had written: ‘Ronnie’s great day’.”

EXECUTING THE PROCESS

Rewind. It was a class field. Roger Bannister had retired, but most of the luminaries of a golden age in mile running stood for the metric mile in Melbourne.

John Landy, the second man to run a four-minute mile; Laszlo Tabori, the third; Brian Hewson, the fifth; Murray Halberg, who’d take 5,000m gold in 1960, the first Kiwi to break the barrier; Gunnar Nielsen, second to Bannister at the 1954 Euros; Stanislav Jungwirth, who’d go on to break the world record. Delany, the seventh man sub-four.

In the village beforehand, Ronnie met the British trio, Hewson, Ian Boyd and Kenneth Wood.

“They looked ashen-faced. They think they are going to do an analysis of the field with me, and they ask who’s going to win. And I said: ‘I’m going to win.’

Something felt right about this day.

“I sometimes suggest destiny is an aspect of your Olympic achievement. It is, of course, but the more serious aspect is how you work, how you think, how you concentrate, how you set your goals, and how you race on the day.”

Nowadays, in a world of sports psychs and performance coaches, we’d hear a lot about sticking to the process. About executing. Ronnie learnt the process from Jack Sweeney at Crusaders.

“I credit him, Lord rest his soul, with teaching me that when I was 17 years of age. Enhancing it when I was 18. My formula to win. Make one significant strike, and only one, and don’t make it too early, make it a little bit later. If you went too early, you were likely to blow up.”

Ronnie was also blessed with a rare decisiveness; a feeling for what had to be done. He had a cadetship. He was officer material. In 1950s Ireland, it wasn’t an opportunity to concede lightly.

“At 19, I decided I have to leave the Army, because I can’t explore my athletic talent to the full. Now, I wasn’t a great athlete. A two-minute half-miler. This little brat, giving up a lifetime career. My father wasn’t too pleased.”

There was a spell selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners in Kilkenny before his runs earned him a scholarship to Villanova University in Philadelphia, where renowned coach Jumbo Elliott knocked off a few corners.

“Jumbo was a manager. He managed my training and my discipline and my attitude. He insisted you were well-dressed, that you wore blazers and ties, that your hair was neatly trimmed. He taught us how to be good citizens, and he taught us the discipline of modesty. He let go many great athletes, because their attitude wasn’t conforming to his.

“And he brought you to the great stadia. I was in Madison Square Garden at 19 years of age taking on the best in the world.”

Not that Jumbo was in it for the character development. The slogan on the wall in Villanova read: ‘Win or Bust.’

“I learned how to race in the arenas of America. In the tight tracks indoors. I was instinctively a racer. I was never satisfied with running a fast time or I’ll do a personal best or I’ll break the record. All I was thinking about was getting across that line in first place.”

With a lap to go in Melbourne, Ireland was wondering if the Beeb had thrown a bum steer. Ronnie was last but one, though you could throw a blanket over the field, the official so gripped he forgot to ring the bell.

“The pace stepped up. Hewson found himself out in front, which I’m sure he didn’t particularly like. Richtzenhain moved up. Landy and I began our move on that second-last bend. Landy was moving harder than I was. I didn’t necessarily know it was him. Just a runner in front of me. I saw him working hard down the back stretch and I got in his tailwind. And I still wasn’t running hard. I wanted to make one absolutely decisive move, which would take me to victory.

“I ran the last 400m in 54 seconds, allegedly the last 300m in 38 seconds. The technocrat knows what that is; it is that I was flying. The other guys were running fast, but I was flying.

“When I made my move, and went around the field, I was picking people off and I was running comfortably. Within myself. My legs were high lift, my trailing leg was short. My arms hadn’t begun to work terribly hard yet. And I get into the straight and I’m in the lead.

“And you then run down towards the tape. Your ambition for life has been to win a gold medal for Ireland. You put your arms out wide around five yards from the tape, because you know nobody is going to beat you and you say to yourself: ‘I don’t believe it, I’ve won.’”

ALWAYS AN OLYMPIAN

It was Landy’s destiny too. World record holder. Hometown hero. Fall guy of one of the most iconic moments in athletics history, when he looked over his shoulder and allowed Bannister slip the other side in “The Miracle Mile”. Hero of one of the most cherished moments in Australian sporting history, when he doubled back at the national championships to check on the fallen Ron Clarke, before making up 30 yards to win.

In June, 1956, with Ronnie in a slump, Landy consoled him, told him his shoulders were too tense on the track, that he needed to relax.

As Ronnie considered what he’d done, on the grass verge, Landy, who took bronze, was first on the scene.

“There’s a great photo. I felt it incumbent on myself to say a prayer. I’m kneeling, which is a bit over the top, my hands are clasped in prayer. I don’t know if the expression is angelic, but mine is as if I’ve seen a vision. The lads are bending over me and they’re all knackered. Hewson had to be carried off.

“John was the first over me, which is a great tribute to the closeness of sportsmanship. He thought I’d collapsed, sees my face, and sees I’m not even winded.”

Landy’s build-up had been disrupted, but he assured the world afterwards he could never have beaten Delany that day.

He would go on to become governor of Victoria and remains one of the most loved Australians, even after a career in politics.

“Every time I go to Australia, 25 years after, 30 years, 50, he’s my friend, we see each other. When he comes to Dublin, we see each other. His wife Lynne is a friend of my wife. There’s that sort of fraternity. I’m still in touch with Brian Hewson, with Halberg, All of us who benefitted from longevity, we’re still very, very close. Every single one of those guys. There’s such a fellowship and a bond.”

But never sympathy.

“No. I knew what it was like to be beaten. I knew what it was like to win. You didn’t patronise anyone with ‘you ran a great race’. It was my destiny to win that day. I did the work and I ran a great race. He ran a great race too, but it wasn’t in his great life plan to be the Olympic champion.”

NOW FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE

“The rest of my athletic career would always be a sort of anticlimax,” Ronnie wrote, in his book Staying The Distance, published 10 years ago.

He was just 21 when he won gold.

He won his next 28 races after Melbourne, part of a 40-race winning streak in the USA, setting three indoor world records.

Over there, he was a superstar, pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February, 1959, which worried that the United States was becoming a second-class track power.

‘Delany Doubles’ on the varsity circuit became legend. “Of course I wouldn’t tell you about these things, if I didn’t win them,” he laughs. “But by the time I was mature, I could win at 1,000 yards and two miles in the same hour. I could win a mile and a half-mile in the same half-hour.”

That kind of profile brought its own problems. His eye for the tape over the clock didn’t always wash with record-obsessed crowds. After a last-ditch dip past Tom Murphy at Madison Square Garden, he was booed when the time showed up slow.

“What do they want? Blood,” he moaned in an interview afterwards, a rare show of truculence.

But there was nothing much about any of that on the wireless back home. Or in the papers.

“The Irish media picked up bits and pieces off Associated Press and occasionally there would be something on Pathé News if I set a world record, but mostly it wasn’t covered, my American career.”

It was when he returned to Ireland in the summer of 1957 that the weight of expectation and celebrity smothered him a little.

“It was theoretically for holidays. Mentally, I was on holidays, though I still trained most days, but when I got home, I had to take on the best in the world in front of a home audience. I was home trying to get in a bit of dancing at the local hop. Luckily, I didn’t drink, but I was a social animal. I was tired. Sometimes I’d just go into races and I was battered by the intensity of having to race in front of 20,000 home fans in Lansdowne Road, or out in Santry in world-record races.

“To go to the European Championships, and run carelessly and not win to the disappointment of the media and Irish fans, that was anticlimactic. Sometimes, I was just beaten by a better man. Like Elliott.”

Herb Elliott — in Delany’s view, the greatest miler — was first home in another ‘Miracle Mile’ in 1958 at a thronged Santry, the stadium Delany’s success inspired Billy Morton to build. Delany was third, with the first four inside world-record time.

“That ‘one significant strike’ theory was great until you ran against someone like Elliott, who ran the legs off you. Jack never taught me how to deal with that.”

Hewson, too, turned the tables, at the 1958 Euros in Stockholm, with his own premonition.

“I remember before the race, turning to him and saying: ‘Who do the conditions favour today?’ And he said: ‘They favour me, I’m going to win today.’

Delany took bronze, but there is no looking back in anger on any of the setbacks. Read the book Peter Snell and the Kiwis Who Flew, he advises, for a portrait of a glorious time for athletics.

“You don’t have retrospectives; if I done this or done that. That’s an irrelevancy. You didn’t. You know what you did wrong, but bemoaning it, no…

“The girl I admired was the lovely O’Rourke. Derval. What a great competitor. She had my philosophy about racing. She got through the heats, sometimes struggling, but when she got on the line, she only had one objective: To win. And she won her championship and she performed to great ability throughout her career.”

Ronnie’s career was over at 26, the era’s medicine unable to solve persistent Achilles problems.

“Rome in 1960 was a disaster for me, I was injured. But three weeks later, one of the great pleasures of my life is to recall I beat Elliott — who won the 1,500m in Rome — in a half-mile in Dublin. To me, that was saying to my inner self, you’re still a great athlete, a world-champion athlete.”

THE VALUE OF EVERYTHING

If you’re reading this online, you won’t find official race footage. €1,500 was the price quoted by the IOC (it’s on YouTube, of course, if you want another look).

The irony wouldn’t be lost on Ronnie.

“There was no money. I was an amateur athlete and remained amateur all my life. It’s probably one of the things I’m proudest of. The commercial use of sports people as strongly-branded athletes didn’t commence until television came in. The real value is the visual. That wasn’t there in my day.”

With rewards have come drugs and corruption, but Ronnie is reluctant to lecture.

“It was not there in my era. So I don’t choose to wander into that area, because it’s so simple to be critical, but the solution is so complex.

“I’ve great admiration for Sport Ireland. Their drug-testing programme is outstanding. The integrity of the likes of John Treacy is unquestionable. There are great efforts going on. The Olympic movement themselves are, theoretically very rough on it, but they leave themselves open to criticism.”

He is aware the purity of the age contributed to his iconic status. There is a charming self-possession about Delany, comfortable with his place in a nation’s affections, without being affected by it. He puts it to work... for Friends of the Elderly, Age Action, Lung Health Alliance, for any sports club who wants him to inspire them.

His is a public lap of honour that started when his plane landed at Shannon 60 years ago. Gerald Holland, the Sports Illustrated journalist who travelled home with Ronnie noted then a peculiar characteristic of the Irish, evident in Limerick, Nenagh, Naas, Dublin, every place the victory parade stopped.

“With a little stimulation, patrons in the pubs would recall somebody out of the past who could beat Delany. With a little more stimulation, they were ready to take him on themselves, given a week to train and proper shoes.”

Ronnie is comfortable with that side of things too, amused by it.

“I’m being honoured all the time. And it is an honour. I was walking down the quays in Dublin maybe 20 years ago, and this real Dub comes towards me. I knew he was looking at me. And he says: ‘Are you Ronnie Delany?’ with suitable expletives.

“And I, modestly, lowered my eyes and said: ‘Yes.’

“And he said: ‘I never saw anyone who got so much bloody mileage out of winning a medal.’

“Forty-odd years later, I’m still being lauded and praised and here we are, 60 years later, and I’m still being praised to the hilt.”

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