Friday 19 December 2014

Running for gold

Sometimes Olympians live up to their name. According to Wikipedia, Ronald Michael Delany was born 6th  March 1935 into a wealthy family in Arklow, County Wicklow.  It depends, as so often, on what you understand by "wealthy" because in my days as a commuter to Dublin, I'd be on the bus going past his natal gaff a tuthree times every week; and it didn't look like the kind of mansion my grandfather was born into. It looks, if not an artisan's cottage, like a modest 3-up, 3-down terraced house [L with black oval famous-person plaque], sited about 150m N of the bridge over the River Avoca which bisects Arklow.  Arklow was a small (N=4,200 people) market town and fishing port when Delany was born there.  When the Celtic Tiger started roaring, it more than tripled its population with an influx of commuters.

Mais revenons a nos gazelles. Delany went to college in 1954 at Villanova University in Pennsylvania on an athletic scholarship where he was coached by Jumbo Elliot, a man who was associated with a quite embarrassing string of top athletes. In his middle distance element, particularly on indoor tracks, Delany was practically unassailable in collegiate athletic meets. Then he upped his game by securing a place in the final of the 1500m at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. A scorching pace was set early on but John Landy, the Ozzie home favorite hung well back and Delany hung on to Landy.  In the last 300m Delany just ate up the 7 or 8 fellows in front of him: loping wide on the last turn, he became a running god: effortless, calm, relentless he breezed across the line at least 5m ahead of everyone else. Landy struggled to snatch a bronze. I watch it all again and again, it still brings a lump to my throat.  Not the fury and contortions of Zatopek, just a man in a zone which most of us don't even dream about.

Here's another great finish (Finnish, geddit), as Lasse Viren [FI] holds off Emiel Puttemans [BE] in the last lap of the 10,000m in Munich 1972. Viren is clear in the lead but Puttemans is reeling him in at the last corner until he looks behind him for competition rather than being focused entirely on the guy in front: that's the end - no steam left.  Viren broke the world record that day and also took gold for 5000m in the same competition.  When I watched that race from the sofa as an eighteen year old, I was Puttemans - not quite enough bottle - which is unfair to Puttemans who broke the world 3000m record that same summer of 1972.

When Ireland did tolerably well in the Soccer World Cup in 1990, the event is credited with starting the first whimpers of the Celtic Tiger a couple of years later.  Irish people at home and abroad felt that things were possible, everyone pushed a little more, kept going a little longer and started to feel better in themselves and in their pocket.  It was like that in 1956: Delany's surprising win made folks back home believe.  For a while Ireland became The Little Country That Could.

One of my colleagues at The Institute has a 50th birthday coming up next week and yesterday an office pal baked a big chocolate cake and invited us all to a modest celebration. There were two strangers at the party and I sort of assumed that the older fellow was birthday boy's father.  But when we sat down, I was almost opposite and I was introduced to "Ronnie Delany" . . . brief pause to assimilate unexpected information . . . "The Ronnie Delany?" I gasped as I shook his hand.  I went all coy and fluttery: for a confirmed couch-potato I am the most terrible groupie for athletes. Delany will turn 80 next March, I hope he gets the most enormous cake.  I stopped paying attention to sport very shortly after the 1972 Olympics; I knew I could neither compete nor contribute so I gave up. The other stranger at yesterday's birthday party was Marcus O'Sulllivan, another Irish graduate of Villanova U and gold-winning middle distance athlete: the next generation's Ronnie Delany, but I'd never heard of him.  I should pay more attention because he's an interesting guy who has ideas about giving back.  They are doing this in a direct way for The Institute by sponsoring one of our Sports Science students to intern at Villanova: the current generation's Gold Medalist maybe?

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