Monday 25 September 2017

flying

They dug the pit, long and deep, but there were no spuds or cabbages to be planted here. Only feet and heels. That morning Tim Ahearne cycled the 12 miles from Direen, near Athea, over the border into Kerry and on to school at St Michael's College in Listowel. He was around 14 at the time and was prevailed upon to try the new long-jump board. Tim landed two feet beyond the pit and by such deeds Olympic champions are found and made.

It was London 1908 and Tim was in the Olympic triple-jump final. It was probably the most keenly-contested triple jump in Olympic history. Ahearne was just 22 and a rank outsider.

He was competing under a British flag and it was only when the Irish competitors insisted on the team being renamed Great Britain and Ireland that the Irish athletes agreed to take part.

Indeed, at the opening ceremony, the Americans -- mostly comprising athletes from the Irish-American Athletic Club -- refused to dip their flag before King Edward VII at the behest of the competing Irish. The Irish-American Athletic Club went on to win as many gold medals as the entire haul of France and Germany.

Tim broke the Olympic record to go ahead of Edvard Larsen from Norway, who himself broke the old record that morning. Garfield MacDonald from Canada then broke the record again and went into the lead.

Tim was last to jump. The official record states he was in a serene state. Not a nerve in his body.

Tim was fast and hit the board with a thump. His hop from the left foot back on to his left was phenomenal, the step from left to right foot was only fair but from somewhere he produced an incredible jump to break the Olympic record again.

He was the youngest gold medal winner at the 1908 Olympics.

Later, Tim told of how he jumped the flooded Gale river, a span of 22 feet, when he was a young boy and it was the memory of this feat that took him to the edge of the pit and into the gold medal position.

He went on to win the British championship and won Irish titles at sprinting, hurdling and long jump.

Tim cycled to Dublin from Direen and the 160 miles back home on a High Nelly bicycle, that very night.

Ahearne was one of a number of Irish athletes who climbed the flagpole and replaced the Union Jack with an Irish flag at the medal ceremony. It is quite possible Ahearne was persona non grata with the establishment and, with no possibility of work at home, he emigrated to New York in 1909.

There to meet him was his younger brother, Dan, who would go on to become the greatest triple jumper never to win an Olympic medal.

In 1910 Dan won the triple-jump title at the US championships and went on to win eight American titles and was world record holder for 14 years.

He increased the record in the colours of the Irish-American Athletic Club at Celtic Park, Long Island, and became the first man in history to break 50ft.

By 1911 the two brothers were one and two in the world, yet neither competed in the Stockholm Olympics of 1912. Tim would not jump again for Great Britain and Dan wasn't allowed to compete as he wasn't an American citizen. As an Irishman he would have to line out for Great Britain which he steadfastly refused to do.

The pity is Dan would have won the Olympics on crutches. The winning jump was a long way behind Dan's world record.

World War One meant that the 1916 Games were cancelled. Again Dan was easily the best in the world and again denied an almost definite gold medal.

Dan eventually competed in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. But he almost never made the Games as he was suspended for breaking a curfew. The entire US athletics team refused to compete unless the Irishman was reinstated.

It is reputed the chairman of the US Olympic committee asked what the athletes would do if the committee resigned. Dan is said to have replied: "We'll elect a new one."

The fact Dan was an emigrant may have weighed against him. He had to break the word record several times before it was acknowledged and even by 1920 it was a case of them and us.

There was no way Dan would stand down and the committee gave second best. Dan finished sixth, but by then he was well past his prime.

Tim and Dan both died in the States. Gone, but not forgotten. Family and friends erected a simple but evocative bronze statue of 'winged feet' on the main street of Athea.

Local woman Amina Parkes recalls how British Olympic champion Sebastian Coe told her the brothers were his childhood heroes and how upset he was when he read the story of Dan being denied certain gold in successive Olympics by political forces outside of his control.

For many years it was thought the gold medal was either in the United Sates or lost, but then Tom Ahearne produced a fine book to mark the hundredth anniversary of 1908 and so the mystery was solved.

Tim insisted his gold medal remained in his beloved Direen. It's in a simple glass case in the old family home.

His 90-year-old niece Ellen is the custodian of the trophies and medals won by her uncles, who brought such honour and glory to a little village.

Billy Keane won a Munster schools triple jump championship in the singlet of St Michael's College Listowel, the alma mater of the Aherne brothers

Irish Independent Supplement

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