Ireland and the Olympics

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2012), Volume 20

Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin carrying the Olympic torch on 6 June 2012—‘Can you imagine what an Olympian Henry Shefflin could have been, in possibly half a dozen sports? Carrying the Olympic torch is only a taster of what many of our sporting talents in Ireland could have achieved were the national games also Olympic ones’. (Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE)

Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin carrying the Olympic torch on 6 June 2012—‘Can you imagine what an Olympian Henry Shefflin could have been, in possibly half a dozen sports? Carrying the Olympic torch is only a taster of what many of our sporting talents in Ireland could have achieved were the national games also Olympic ones’. (Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE)

For far too long our definitions of ‘history’ were limited to the political, military and diplomatic, and it is wonderful to see historians now embracing sporting and cultural history with open arms and inquisitive eyes. On previous occasions when sports-history themes have raised their heads in Ireland interest has tended to be mainly in the GAA, and to a slightly lesser extent in football and rugby. Within this subset, popular interest has largely been centred on the sporting exploits of GAA and other heroes and much less on the political, social and diplomatic impact of sport. It is time we redressed the balance, and we hope that this special edition of History Ireland is a move in the right direction.

 

Let no one doubt it: it is impossible for one issue of a magazine, or indeed for one book, to do historical justice to Ireland’s involvement in the greatest sporting show on Earth. This issue cuts a number of corners: the Winter Olympics are omitted, as are most of the exploits of Irish Olympians of recent memory and, indeed, many of the well-known older stories too, simply through pressure of space. The authors have been sourced for their eclectic expertise, for their perspectives from both Irish and foreign angles, and for their knowledge of the games themselves. They range from the most-published Olympic scholar of all, Bill Mallon of the USA, to the ground-breaking Irish female Olympian Maeve Kyle and a host of experts in different sporting and cultural fields.

 

This edition is both a celebration of Ireland’s role at the Olympic Games and an investigation into many little-known stories of success and failure, of politics and prejudice. Ireland’s relationship with the modern Olympics has been full of contradictions over the years. With the exception of some of the newer states of the former Soviet Union, the Irish remain the one nation that has provided more Olympic medal-winners for other nations than for the political entity of Ireland itself. This is a reflection on the history of Ireland as an emigrant nation, as a non-independent nation and, to an extent, as a politically divided one too. Ireland is also unique in that its national games are central to its sporting life, not peripheral. This means that a natural pool of sporting talent has probably been drained somewhat from international sport, simply through the sheer popularity of hurling and Gaelic football. Can you imagine what an Olympian Henry Shefflin could have been, in possibly half a dozen sports? Carrying the Olympic torch is only a taster of what many of our sporting talents in Ireland could have achieved were the national games also Olympic ones, as is the case in countries like Finland and Cuba. That’s a statement, not a criticism, from one who would still not give Ireland’s greatest-ever hurler to the world for anything. (I just wish he were from my native Waterford!)

 

The first Olympics that I can recall watching were those in Mexico in 1968—for many people the first televised games they saw. The time gap meant that even afternoon events in Mexico City were in the evening here, while evening events there invariably ran either side of an Irish midnight. As an eight-year-old, with a dad who was both an Olympic fan and the proud owner of a newish PYE television, this was the first time I was ever allowed to stay up until really late. The feats of Keino and Gammoudi, Beamon and Fosbury have lived in my memory ever since. So too, of course, has the sight of two black American athletes holding their black-gloved fists high on the victory podium.

 

US athletes Tommie Smith (200m gold) and John Carlos (bronze) raise their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico games, for many Irish people the first televised games they saw.

US athletes Tommie Smith (200m gold) and John Carlos (bronze) raise their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico games, for many Irish people the first televised games they saw.

The truth is that it is impossible to separate ‘mere’ sport from its deeper and often darker political and social elements. Nor should we try to. We can learn as much genuine history via proper analysis of sport as we can by many other vehicles. If you think sport is just sport, then mention the name Zatopek to a Czech, Puskas to a Hungarian or Senna to a Brazilian and watch the tears well up in their eyes. Sport, and its stars, can encapsulate and heighten a nation’s identity, history and self-esteem in a unique way. It can give historians an insight into many, many aspects of human activity and development. Historians in nations like the USA, Australia and Germany have known this for decades, and Ireland is beginning to respect sports history as a discipline in its own right too.

 

Ireland’s Olympic story, even in the limited way we can touch upon it here, has the power to hold a mirror to the face of our history generally. In this edition we see the travails of those seeking to establish women’s sport, and we are reminded that our current greatest sportsperson, Katie Taylor, is walking in the shadow of many, many giants. We learn, too, of those trying to establish an identity for minority sports with paltry resources, or battling old imperial and establishment forces for Irish recognition. The International Olympic Committee was, and still is, about as staunchly conservative and aristocratic a body as there is in modern sport, so little here should surprise us really.

 

The Olympic Games have probably had more ‘history’ written about them than any other sporting event. They have certainly had more mythology written about them too. The supposed cessation of warfare every four years in ancient Greece, in order for athletes to compete against each other in manly, fair and unrewarded contest, was largely a myth. In the modern games, the purported sacred cows of amateurism, ‘clean-ness’ and sport for sport’s sake have been fictions almost from the very start. There were professionals, strychnine- and champagne-taking athletes and cheats at every games since their modern reincarnation. The Olympics are about winning, not just taking part. They have been used, and abused, by dictators and nations, by communism and capitalism, in equal measure. The days of Greek shepherds winning marathons and then returning to mind their sheep or of Irish tourists winning the tennis competitions are long gone. The Olympics in every respect are all about professionalism, about commercialism, about winning. Anyone watching the torch relay through Dublin on 6 June cannot have failed to notice the Samsung and Coca-Cola floats travelling along with it—and if you did fail to notice them, questions will be asked somewhere, don’t doubt it! And yet the Olympics remain the greatest show on Earth, containing more heroism and hard luck, exhibitionism, greatness and disappointment than you can find anywhere, possibly outside of warfare.

 

Triple Olympic hammer champion (1900, 1904 and 1908) John J. Flanagan, a member of the Irish-American Athletic Club, which had more Olympic medal-winners to its name before 1920 than the whole of ‘Ireland’ has had since independence.

Triple Olympic hammer champion (1900, 1904 and 1908) John J. Flanagan, a member of the Irish-American Athletic Club, which had more Olympic medal-winners to its name before 1920 than the whole of ‘Ireland’ has had since independence.

It can be argued that, to a certain extent, the Irish were duped for a little too long by the ‘it’s all about taking part’ fallacy. The games, despite the rampant commercialism which now drives them, do not have the daily razzamatazz, thankfully, of a Tour de France. Nor do they have the single-sport nationalistic focus of a football World Cup. They have many problems, not least the ongoing battle against doping in all its forms, in which some combatants are possibly more proactive than others. Yet the winners of Wimbledon titles, Tours and Giros, and soon even the British Open, will continue to see an Olympic gold medal as the pinnacle of sporting accomplishment. That is unlikely to change any time soon, but let’s not fool ourselves that it is all about participation.

 

From an Irish perspective, the Olympics have been a very mixed bag. There was massive success in the early days for athletes of Irish birth but competing under different flags. It is particularly good to see this edition pay some homage to the Irish-American Athletic Club (I-AAC) and its role in shaping US sport and Olympicism. The I-AAC has still got more Olympic medal-winners to its name before 1920 than the whole of ‘Ireland’ has since independence. Since the arrival of Irish independence, the growth of the Olympics into a global sporting phenomenon, the national and international political wrangling and a degree of sporting abdication by successive Irish governments have contributed to quite a degree of competitiveness but limited medal successes for Ireland, with the notable exception of boxing. It is incredible to think that with all the great runners, jumpers and throwers that Ireland has produced, up to and including recent times, the last athlete to achieve Olympic success without the benefit of major foreign coaching was probably Pat O’Callaghan, all of 80 years ago.

 

So let this special Olympic edition of History Ireland take its readers on an Olympian journey, a sporting odyssey that will, we hope, shed some light on Ireland’s history generally and on the trials, the tribulations and the occasionally glorious triumphs of Ireland’s Olympians.  HI
Kevin McCarthy is the author of Gold, silver and green: the Irish Olympic journey, 1896–1924 (Cork University Press, 2010).

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