THE story of Oscar Pistorius is hauntingly reminiscent of the troubles of one of the most famous Irish Olympians little over a century ago.
Matthew J McGrath from Nenagh had made quite a name from himself internationally when he shot what he said was an intruder in his home on Christmas Eve in 1910.
McGrath, who had emigrated to the US as a teenager in the 1890s, joined the New York Police Department in 1902 and was awarded the medal of valour for rescuing someone who was trying to take their own life from the Harlem River in 1905. The same year, he burst on the sporting scene by breaking the world record for the hammer throw.
He represented the US at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. In the opening parade, he was walking in the front line behind Ralph Rose, the flag carrier. As they approach the royal box, McGrath reportedly said: “Dip that flag, and you’ll be in hospital tonight.”
McGrath may well have said it, but if he did, it was probably in jest. Rose, an Olympic shot-putting champion, was a much bigger man, and the decision not to dip the flag had undoubtedly been planned. The whole thing caused a diplomatic incident and sparked a bitter rivalry between Britain and the US at those games.
McGrath led the hammer going into the last round, but was beaten into second place by his compatriot, John Flanagan of Kilbreedy, near Kilmallock, Co Limerick. Flanagan thus became the first man in the modern Olympics to win a specific event at three consecutive games. The bronze medallist that day was Con Walsh from Carriganimma, near Macroom, representing Canada. It was the first and only time in the Olympic Games that three men born and reared in Ireland swept all the medals in an event.
On Christmas Eve 1910, McGrath was back in the news for all the wrong reasons. He shot a man five times in his New York home and beat him about the head with his truncheon. He said that George Walker was an intruder in his home, but Walker claimed that McGrath’s wife had invited him to the house to adjust a Christmas tree.
A barman at a local hotel testified that McGrath’s wife had been drinking with Walker in the hotel bar during the afternoon. McGrath was tried on a charge of causing grievous bodily harm, but the jury found him not guilty after a three-day trial in March 1911.
The Police Commissioner dismissed McGrath from the NYPD the following month, but the Mayor of New York ousted the commissioner a few weeks later, and the new commissioner reinstated McGrath in May 1911. A concerned group then took a civil case to prevent McGrath being paid from public money.
This was an obvious attempt to force him out of the police department, but his colleagues agreed to have money deducted from their salaries to pay McGrath’s salary. While this episode was ongoing, McGrath was back competing at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he won the gold medal with probably the most devastating display in the history of the event.
All six of his throws were more than 13 feet further than the best throw of the silver medallist. The Olympic record he set that day lasted for 24 years.
McGrath went on to compete in the 1920 Games at Antwerp, but he injured his knee in his second throw and had to withdraw. Yet his one good throw was good enough to win him fifth place.
In 1924 he competed at the Paris Olympics at the age of 45, winning his second silver medal, thus becoming the oldest track and field medallist of all time.
McGrath had duly been put back on full pay within the NYPD and rose to become the third highest-ranking officer in the force before his retirement in 1940.