Paul Rouse: Could have been a contender? When Dublin dreamed of hosting the Olympics

In the 1930s, Ireland actually made bids to stage the Olympic Games. Indeed, it had attempted to stage the 1932 Olympics (awarded to Los Angeles) and the 1936 Games (awarded to Berlin) and then the 1940 Olympics.
Paul Rouse: Could have been a contender? When Dublin dreamed of hosting the Olympics

Michael Carruth with his Gold medal won at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. His success inspired the then-Lord Mayor of Dublin to look into the possibility of the Games coming to Ireland. Picture: INPHO/James Meehan.

There is a thing to watch in the coming days: Will any Irish politician be unable to resist the temptation to propose Ireland as a venue for the Olympic Games?

There is long form in this matter — its most recent manifestation was in 2017, when the then Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, said that the idea of the Olympic Games being staged in Dublin was “a real, realistic prospect.”

He was not joking; instead, Ross was speaking in front of an Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Sport.

The comments were made in the context of Ireland’s then live bid to stage the 2023 Rugby World Cup. At that stage, he was attempting to present the sort of image of Irish sporting infrastructure that would make the awarding of the Rugby World Cup to Ireland as an obvious thing to do.

Ross told the Oireachtas Committee that “the sky’s the limit” for Ireland’s potential to host international sporting events, saying: “We’re now thinking in these terms and it’s very, very exciting. Let’s think about the Olympics. I remember Gay Mitchell suggesting it some years ago, and he was laughed to scorn, now it’s a real, realistic prospect. If we build up these stadiums and we are a credible bidder, which we obviously are if we win this bid, I think the sky’s the limit.”

It is worth recalling here the involvement of Gay Mitchell, referred to by Shane Ross. Mitchell was a long-serving Fine Gael TD, who actually contested the 2002 party leadership contest won by Enda Kenny and was later the Fine Gael candidate for the 2011 presidential election won by Michael D Higgins.

Back in 1992, he was Lord Mayor of Dublin when Michael Carruth came home from the Barcelona Olympics with a boxing gold medal.

It was the first gold medal won by an Irish competitor since Ronnie Delany’s gold medal in Melbourne in 1956.

Flushed with the emotion of a Dubliner winning gold — and no doubt having read of the transformative impact of staging the Olympics on Barcelona — Mitchell was moved to say he would look to bring the Olympics to Dublin.

As mayor, he commissioned a report to examine the feasibility of Dublin staging the Olympic Games. The broad idea was that the Games might be staged in Dublin in 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising.

Wrapped into the idea were assumptions that the staging of the Games would drive the regeneration of Dublin, would present a positive image of Ireland internationally, and would increase participation in sport in Ireland.

All of this would cost a huge amount of money, of course. Ireland’s sporting infrastructure was entirely inadequate and the billions required to bring it up to standard for an Olympic Games would not be easily found.

And, of course, even if the money had been available, the notion that an Olympic Games would deliver on the assumed positive outcomes was hugely speculative.

The timing of the announcement left Gay Mitchell open to accusations of absolute opportunism. The reality of the endeavour was much more complex than that, however.

He assembled a committee of people of great calibre to work towards delivering major sporting events towards Dublin.

That being said, the whole notion to bring the Olympics to Dublin was so outlandish when set against the reality of life in Ireland that scorn and ridicule were inevitable. In the end, needless to say, a bid to stage the Olympics was not made.

But, back in the 1930s, Ireland actually did make bids to stage the Olympic Games. Indeed, it had attempted to stage the 1932 Olympics (awarded to Los Angeles) and the 1936 Games (awarded to Berlin) and then the 1940 Olympics.

The most realistic effort appears to have been for the 1940 Olympics. At the 1932 Olympic Games, Ireland enjoyed great success with gold medals won in track and field by Pat O’Callaghan and Bob Tisdall. The medals drew a huge outpouring of popular emotion.

At a banquet at the Gresham Hotel to celebrate the achievements of O’Callaghan and Tisdall, General Eoin O’Duffy announced that he had nominated Dublin as a possible host city for the Olympic Games of 1940.

O’Duffy was the Garda Commissioner and also the president of the Irish Olympic Council. He was an ardent believer in the merit of sport and its central importance to every nation.

He himself chain-smoked Sweet Afton cigarettes and was fond of a drink (to use the delicate phrase), but was nonetheless fanatical about the potential of sport to rid a people of all moral (and other) corruptions.

The historian Tom Hunt recalls that O’Duffy believed the prospect of Dublin being chosen to stage the 1940 Olympics was a good one: “The nomination was made at official level when O’Duffy was in conversation with the president of the IOC, Count de Baillet-Latour. O’Duffy’s optimism was based on a number of factors. The response from a number of national representatives in Los Angeles was encouraging. Only the USA and Finland won more athletic titles than Ireland at Los Angeles and the performance of O’Callaghan and Tisdall had generated an enormous fund of goodwill and created a positive national image.”

He continued: “Ireland’s success in hosting the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 was widely known and it was accepted that a city that could accommodate the one million visitors who attended this event could be entrusted with the organisation of the Olympic Games. Ireland’s long-standing tradition in athletics would also make it a worthy host country for the 1940 Games.”

The question of funding loomed large; it would require the expenditure of an estimated £500,000 on athletic, swimming, and boxing stadia. This was a huge sum of money at the time, but O’Duffy believed that the proceeds of a state-supported sweepstake would provide the necessary money.

The optimism that Ireland would stage the 1940 Olympic Games soon diminished. After Fianna Fáil assumed power, O’Duffy was dismissed as Garda Commissioner in 1933. In that same year, he became leader of the movement popularly known as ‘The Blueshirts’ (officially titled the Army Comrades Association and then the National Guard).

Later that decade he made his way with hundreds of followers to fight for General Franco against the Republic in the Spanish Civil War.

Ultimately, as Tom Hunt explains, the exit of O’Duffy from a position of power in Irish sport destroyed whatever chance Dublin had of being awarded the 1940 Games: “The 1940 Games were awarded to Tokyo at the International Olympic Committee session of 31 July 1936. Five European cities applied — Rome, Helsinki, Barcelona, Budapest, and Dublin. But Helsinki was the only serious contender from Europe. This was the country’s finest opportunity to host the Games but once O’Duffy resigned and later cut his ties with the Olympic movement, the possibility of Ireland hosting the 1940 Olympic Games or realistically any future Olympic Games was lost.”

In the end, the 1940 Games never actually took place in Tokyo. The world was by then at war. For his part, Eoin O’Duffy did not see the return of peace; he died in 1944 — he was just 54.

- Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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