Peter O’Connor, who was born in Wicklow in 1872, lived most of his life in Waterford.
He was the most famous Irish long jumper of all time. He dominated the event in this country and won the British Amateur Athletic Association Championships from 1901 to 1906.
He refused a British invitation to compete at the Paris Olympics in 1900. He wished to represent Ireland only. In 1901, he broke the world record with a jump of 7.61m (24ft 11.75ins), which stood as the world record until 1923, and remained the Irish record holder until 1990.
O’Connor went to Athens in 1906 when The Irish Field helped to raise funds to send a three-man Irish team to the Olympics. Dressed in green blazers and caps, the three Irish athletes marched a discreet distance behind the British team.
The long jump competition was O’Connor’s first chance to compete against the reigning Olympic champion Myer Prinstein.
When Matthew Halpin, the manager of the US team, was allowed to act as the only judge, O’Connor was warned by one of the Irish-Americans that he had no chance of winning with Halpin in sole charge.
O’Connor therefore lodged strenuous objections. Charles Perry, the British judge assigned to officiate alongside Halpin, refused to act because of the way O’Connor had disassociated himself from the British team.
Halpin clearly favoured Prinstein, by allowing him to jump 37 places out of turn but also by ruling out O’Connor’s best jumps as fouls. “My third jump was distinctly ahead of Prinstein’s,” O’Connor noted, but Halpin called it a foul, because O’Connor had supposedly fallen backwards on landing.
“I had a very excitable temper and was simply furious over the English judges’ refusing to officiate,” O’Connor wrote years later. “I was robbed of victory.”
Raising the Union Jack for O’Connor’s second place added insult to injury. He climbed the 20ft flag pole and began waving his own flag, while Con Leahy from Cregane, Co Cork, stood guard at the foot of the pole.
Three days later, Leahy took the lead with his first attempt of 13.98m in the triple jump. He held that lead until O’Connor’s final jump, which was a winning 14.075m.
Before the flags were raised, O’Connor produced two green flags and asked Prince George of Greece, the head of the Olympic Committee, to have those flags raised on the two poles instead of the Union Jack.
“When Ireland has a parliament of its own you can hoist the flag, but not before,” the prince replied. As the British flags were raised, O’Connor “walked about the stadium waving his Irish flag to show the assembled where he hailed from”, the New York Sun reported.
Leahy, meanwhile, was competing in the high jump, and won. The team returned home with two gold and two silver medals.
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