The Olympic Games,THEN and NOW

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

THEN—Maeve Kyle and the Irish team on parade at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Note the name ‘IRELAND’, the first time that designation was accepted by the IOC, courtesy of lobbying by Lord Killanin, recently elected president of the Olympic Council of Ireland. (Irish News Agency)

THEN—Maeve Kyle and the Irish team on parade at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Note the name ‘IRELAND’, the first time that designation was accepted by the IOC, courtesy of lobbying by Lord Killanin, recently elected president of the Olympic Council of Ireland. (Irish News Agency)

THEN, for me, was 1956, when the Olympiad came to Melbourne, Australia. The first intimation that I had been chosen to represent Ireland was the official letter informing me that I had been selected, having achieved the appropriate qualifying performance, and asking would I please forward a contribution of £200! The first hurdle was to raise this vast amount of money, which each of the twelve team members had to find. THEN this sum was 10% of the cost of our home, bought a few months earlier . . . and sold a year ago NOW for £200,000. I wonder how current athletes would respond to a request for £20,000 for Olympic selection? It is interesting to note that the money was raised for every member by his/her own local and sporting communities. Thankfully, with government support and sponsorship, this has been largely resolved, another huge difference between THEN and NOW!Preliminaries over, next up were the travel arrangements, information on the uniform, and so on. Remember this was 1956—the after-effects of World War II were fading but still felt in the slow re-emergence of imports from overseas; in fact, it was a world far removed from the current world of throw-away expendables, be they household items, food, clothing . . . or motor cars! The team was provided with a blazer, white shirt and grey flannels, a tracksuit and a competition vest. As the only woman, I was taken by the late Des O’Sullivan to buy a skirt and white shirt, and he presented me with shoes from his own shop! I got the same competition gear as the boys, but in the interests of decency some alterations had to be made to the vest.

NOW (more or less!)—Maeve Kyle training G. Coulter, R. Browning, A. Boyle and C. Wilkinson at Antrim Stadium in June 2006. (Belfast Newsletter)

NOW (more or less!)—Maeve Kyle training G. Coulter, R. Browning, A. Boyle and C. Wilkinson at Antrim Stadium in June 2006. (Belfast Newsletter)

Ten of the team met in Dublin and were driven to Shannon for the great adventure—two athletes, six boxers, one sailor, one wrestler and one manager. We flew from Shannon to New York—most of us had never had such excitement as a long-haul flight, with meals served! We collected Ronnie Delany and next day flew to San Francisco, where we rested for a week before the next stage. We trained at Berkeley College, were treated at Fisherman’s Wharf and were almost overcome by the friendliness and the amazing ice cream, a rare novelty for most of us. As we were only allowed £5 pocket money (owing to sterling restrictions), we could only window-shop. Part of my job was to try to persuade the boxers to go easy on the ice cream, or making the weight could be a problem. There are NOW so many staff that few of these problems (and maybe less enjoyment) could arise, but THEN we were like children in a sweetshop.The flights onwards were amazing, on two-level Pan-Am Clippers—flying hotels! First stop Hawaii, where we were entertained with a five-course breakfast (pineapple with every course) by lively men with strong Irish connections, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick. Next stop Canton, and then to Sydney. A short stop and then on to the Olympic host city of Melbourne and the most amazing reception by thousands of people, many of whom were Irish children sent to a new life in Australia in the tough times of the 1930s. There were tears and cheers, questions and some answers, but their pleasure at just seeing, touching and talking to people from home, in Melbourne and representing their country, was truly inspiring for the whole team. That was THEN, in 1956, and NOW our young people are emigrating again, and again not through choice but through necessity. I can only hope that they find the same warm welcome. We eventually reached our accommodation; the boys went left and I went right, to the well-guarded Women’s Village. Totally separate quarters . . . that was THEN, whereas NOW teams share the same quarters.Our lovely team manager had not been well on the journey and, sadly, ended up in hospital during our entire stay. There we were, all twelve of us, as Ronnie Delany and Pa Sharkey had joined us en route. We might have had problems but our two Olympic and media representatives rolled up their sleeves and took over the administration of the team. Our Australian attaché (who was of Irish parentage) looked after the protocol, and we all accepted a high level of personal responsibility for seeing that everyone had the best chance of performing well. There were many offers of hospitality, and even of pocket money, from our Australian cousins. Training was arranged, ring support found for the boxers and the wrestler, and a driver for the sailor. If there were problems the athletes were not involved, and each just got on with preparation for their own big day. We were a tightly knit team, supporting each other throughout training and competition, and the results were amazing: one gold, one silver, three bronze and one fourth place, and the rest of the team had decent results. There were no losers; in Ronnie Delany’s words, ‘Once an Olympian, always an Olympian’. That was THEN . . . sadly, we seem to have different values NOW and only winners count.The world has changed: measurements are all based on electronic systems; all the complex facilities and equipment cost the earth; hundreds of experts are needed in each of the 200-plus countries involved, with thousands at the games themselves; and expertise has to be paid for over longer and longer periods. In spite of the current media obsession with medals, when there are only three in each event or sporting category, surely the goal of each contestant is to know how he or she rates against others of his or her speed, strength or spring in whatever sporting sphere they are contesting. Citius, Altius, Fortius means exactly the same THEN and NOW!  HI

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