As Team Ireland prepares for tonight’s opening ceremony in Rio, Kevin McCarthy sheds light on early Olympic glories and high-jinx of Irish athletes

OLYMPIC Games fans of a certain vintage are well used to the semi-panic which seems to prelude almost every modern summer Games, including those at Rio.

The zika virus concerns are an added issue this year, but the perennial question has seemed to be, will the stadium be ready on time?

In that sense, it is quite a change to pay a visit to the wonderful stadium in central Athens which hosted the inaugural modern Olympic Games in 1896.

In essence, this particular Olympic stadium had been ready for its Games for about two millennia.

It was first constructed in the 4th century BC and then ‘modernised’ at the time of the Roman occupation of Greece in the 1st century AD.

True, quite a deal of restoration work was carried out on the Roman structure before it was used in 1896, thanks to the philanthropy of a local businessman named George Averoff. However, the basic components of the stadium, including its shape, dimensions, and seating arrangements had long ago been cast in stone, or rather in solid white marble.

This fabulous structure was a classic ‘stadium’ in terms of its shape — just 34m from one side of the track to the other, but a total of 191m in length. The year 1896 was well before the standardisation of the dimensions of modern athletics stadia.

As a result, the original shape of the Athens stadium was deemed satisfactory to host the inaugural modern Olympics without much debate.

How the Olympic Games began and how the Irish fared

One downside of using it, however, was that the relatively narrow stadium made the staging of some events challenging. It was difficult to maintain speed when running around the tight corners, while safety concerns arising from the narrow field meant no hammer throw was scheduled.

The stadium, which can still be visited today, hosted the archery events and the end of the marathon during the 2004 Athens Olympics. It has been ‘modernised’ again but is still very much as it was in 1896, and still a spectacular structure as it glitters in the usual Athenian sunlight.

It is also a spot from where you can get practically uninterrupted views of the Parthenon, as it is at a higher altitude than much of the surrounding city buildings and trees on the adjacent National Gardens.

Of course, the 1896 stadium is worth a visit by any Irish person because it has huge significance in the story of the Irish at the Olympics.

In 1896, the winner of the very first Olympic medal in any event was a hop, step, and jump athlete named James Brendan Connolly. Though born and reared in Boston and representing the US, Connolly’s parental roots were in the Aran Islands and he later even took part, on the IRA side, in the War of Independence.

The only Irish-born winner of Olympic titles in 1896 was John Boland, who won singles and doubles tennis, the latter in partnership with a German. Boland’s victories were won in a different venue near the port of Piraeus, but he did receive his medals (silver, not gold), certificates and an olive wreath in the Olympic stadium as the Games concluded.

Boland’s medals and papyrus certificates survive, but his diary from 1896 records that he gave the leaves from his olive wreath to female admirers who approached him after his victory ceremony.

A decade after the inaugural modern Olympic Games at this stadium, the International Olympic Committee approved the staging of the 10th anniversary (‘intercalated’) Games in Athens. These Games set the template for subsequent Olympic Games and were a vast improvement on the disjointed Games held in Paris (1900) and St Louis (1904).

While most Olympic historians see the 1906 Games as crucial to the survival and development of the Olympics, to this day the IOC has tended to avoid classing the intercalated Games as official Olympic ones. This is a great pity, not least because the greatest Olympic feats in the Athens stadium by Irish-born athletes were achieved in 1906.

Martin Sheridan from Bohola, Co Mayo, represented the US in 1906, winning five medals in field events. These included two firsts, in discus and shot, and three seconds in the now-defunct events of standing long jump, standing high jump, and ‘stone throwing’.

Monaghan-born John McGough was domiciled in Scotland and won the 1,500m for Britain. What a pity that the stadium made the hammer event an impossibility — Limerick man John Flanagan was then a US athlete and Olympic hammer champion in 1900, 1904, and 1908; he would have been hot favourite in 1896 as well as 1906.

Only three competitors left Ireland directly for Athens in 1906. Two of them were spectacularly successful.

Waterford’s Peter O’Connor won the hop, step, and jump title and was second in the long jump, an event in which he held the world record for nearly 20 years.

Con Leahy of Charleville, Co Cork, was second to O’Connor in the hop, step, and jump, but won a high jump event which lasted two days.

They also famously attempted to be recognised as ‘Irish’ at the 1906 Games, but were denied this by the Greek committee chairman, Crown Prince George, on the grounds that Ireland did not have its own parliament. The Crown Prince was a cousin of King Edward VII and had no intention of encouraging Irish claims for self-governance.

O’Connor famously protested this decision by climbing a flagpole during a medal ceremony and waving an ‘Erin Go Bragh’ flag which he had brought with him, and which had shamrocks and a harp on it. Leahy stood guard for him at the base of the flagpole.

The third Irish-domiciled competitor in 1906 was John Daly of Galway. He did not win a medal, though he had been second in the 1904 steeplechase at St Louis.

He did, however, also demonstrate his Irish identity by wearing a large green shamrock on his singlet when running the marathon race. Many in the crowd along the roadside were said to have chanted ‘Daly, Daly’ when they saw the lead runner approach the stadium, wearing a similar vest.

The runner, and eventual winner, turned out to be a Canadian representative named Billy Sherring; Crown Prince George himself was so excited that he jogged alongside Sherring, applauding as he entered the stadium.

For those who like their history in the ironic vein, this was a great moment. Without realising it, the Crown Prince had applauded a man who was wearing the very same emblem as on the flag hoisted by O’Connor and Leahy. Sherring was the son of a Roscommon woman, and a member of the Shamrock Athletic Club of Winnipeg.

It would be stretching things a bit to claim Billy Sherring’s marathon win as an Irish one, but it had one further twist. A Greek athlete named Mikhalis Papazoglou became a great fan of Sherring’s and began to wear a shamrock on his own singlets when he threw the javelin and discus, and even when he played football.

He was also a prominent member of the Panathenaikos sports club, now mainly known as a football club, when it was founded in 1908. Later, at Papazoglou’s suggestion, Panathenaikos adopted the green shamrock as its club emblem, and it remains so to this day.

Panathenaikos remains the only Greek club to have appeared in the final of a European Cup (the Champions League today). They lost to Ajax of Amsterdam — Johan Cruyff and his mates — in 1971.

That made them, of course, also the only team to appear in a European club football final wearing the shamrock of Ireland — and it’s all connected to that wonderful inaugural Olympic stadium in Athens.

Kevin McCarthy is author of Gold, Silver and Green: The Irish Olympic Journey 1896-1924 (Cork University Press, 2010), a winner of the International Society of Olympic Historians book of the year.

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