THE Winter Olympic Games opened in Vancouver, Canada, early this morning (Irish time). The controversy over the Irish bobsleigh team prompted memories of earlier controversies about Irish participation in the Olympics.
In a timely book, Gold, Silver and Green, Kevin McCarthy covers phenomenal Irish successes at the early modern Games (see review in today’s Weekend). The next summer Olympics will be in London in two years’ time, but no one could dare expect Irish-born athletes to perform as successfully as when the Olympics were first held in London in 1908. Irish-born competitors won 37 Olympic medals that year.
Many may recall the sensational incident at the 1968 Games in Mexico, where two American athletes gave a black power salute after being presented with their medals for the 200 meters. Both stood without shoes as an expression of black poverty. Each also wore a black glove on one hand. Tommie Smith, the gold medal winner, also wore a black scarf, while John Carlos, the bronze medallist, wore a necklace of beads, which he said “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for”.
As the Stars Spangled Banner was being played, each raised his gloved hand in a clenched-fist salute. It was a dignified protest. “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro,” Smith explained. “We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
But White America didn’t understand. Avery Brundage, the American President of the International Olympic Committee, demanded that Smith and Carlos be expelled from the Games and banned for life. American officials delayed until Brundage threatened to expel the entire US track team.
It was a far cry from Athens in 1906 when Peter O’Connor of Waterford protested at the raising of the Union Jack for his second place in the long jump. He climbed up the flagpole and waved a homemade Irish flag, while Con O’Leary from Charleville waved a similar flag standing on the ground.They weren’t suspended. O’Connor went on to win the triple jump in which O’Leary was second, while O’Leary won the high jump. He also won a silver medal in the high jump as part of the Great Britain and Ireland (GB&I) team in 1908. His colleague Tim Ahearne of Athea, County Limerick, won gold in the triple jump, and Joseph Deakin from Wicklow led GB&I to a win in the three-mile team race, while Denis Horgan of Lyre, near Banteer, won silver in the shot put.
Bobby Kerr – a native of Enniskillen – won a gold medal in the 200 meters and a bronze in the 100 meters representing Canada. But Irish-born athletes had the biggest impact competing for the USA. The Irish American Athletic Club (IAAC) of New York had 17 competitors forming the nucleus of the American track and field team in London.
At the opening ceremony, all but one of the flag carriers dipped their flags as a mark of respect as they passed King Edward VII in the stand. The sole exception was Ralph Rose, the American flag carrier, who reportedly said: “This flag dips for no earthly king.”
The incident set the tone for a bitter rivalry, approaching a sporting war between the British and Americans. The Irish-Americans were blamed for the flag incident.The president of the US Amateur Athletic Union was John E Sullivan, the American-born son of a construction worker from Co Kerry. “We all know Sullivan well,” wrote William Sloan of the American Olympic Committee, “his great faults are those of his birth and his breeding.”
Other white people tended to look down on the Irish in America, so Irish-American athletes saw the Games as a chance to refute the ignorant calumnies depicting them as a debauched and inferior race. They considered the Games a chance to defeat Britain on behalf of both the USA and Ireland. Martin Sheridan of Bohola, Co Mayo, won two gold medals and a bronze in field events, bringing his total medal haul to nine at the Games in St Louis, Athens and London.
John Flanagan from near Kilmallock won the hammer throw to become the first man to win the same Olympic event at three consecutive Games on the four-year cycle.
Irish-born competitors made a clean sweep of the hammer medals in London. Flanagan’s IAAC club mate, Matt McGrath from near Nenagh won the silver, while Con Walsh from Carriganimmy, Co Cork, won the bronze medal representing Canada. John Barrett, from near Ballyduff, Co Kerry, finished fifth in the shot put behind Ralph Rose, the controversial American flag carrier, but Barrett was hampered by an injury after one of the Americans “accidentally” dropped the shot on his foot. Incidentally, Barrett’s twin brother, Ed, won a gold medal in the tug of war and a bronze in wrestling. John Carpenter won the 400 meters for the USA, but was disqualified after it was ruled that he deliberately ran wide to prevent the British runner Wyndham Halswelle passing him in the straight. Carpenter was disqualified and the race was re-run in lanes without him. The other competitors refused to run, so Halswelle became the only athlete to win Olympic gold in a walkover.
The athletics came to dramatic end when Dorando Pietri of Italy staggered into the stadium and collapse while leading in the marathon. With Johnny Hayes – the New York-born son of an Irish couple from Nenagh – approaching fast, British officials picked up Pietri and essentially helped him to finish first. But he was then disqualified, and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.
The 1908 Games brought Irish-Americans “closer to sporting, social and political acceptance in the USA than ever before,” according to Kevin McCarthy. Their exploits provided a huge boost for their full acceptance in the USA as Americans. Many Irish people thought there would no holding them, if Ireland were independent.
Matt McGrath, the man from Nenagh who won silver in the hammer in London, went on to win gold at Stockholm in 1912. He was still competing for the USA in his 50th year at the Paris Games of 1924. He actually won the silver medal to become the oldest track and field medallist of all time.
That was the year that Ireland was first officially represented in the Olympics. By then, any prospect of powerful Irish athletic performance had evaporated. In the next 84 years Irish competitors would win only four medals in track and field events.
Pat O’Callaghan won two gold medals, Bob Tisdall and Ronnie Delany won one each, and John Tracy won a silver medal. By contrast, Irish-born competitors won the equivalent of 16 gold, 10 silver and two bronze medals between 1904 and 1912.
Of course, the Irish also won medals in the 1924 Games in Paris – for cultural events. Jack B Yeats won an Olympic silver medal in “mixed painting,” while Oliver St. John Gogarty won a bronze for his poetry in the “mixed literature competition”.
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