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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Retire? Not me. I'm in training for the 2016 Olympic Games

Published 18/11/2012 | 06:00

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I arrive through the door of Roly's a couple of minutes early to find Jimmy Magee has started without me. Not with the meal, but with the jovial banter. We haven't reached our table and he's already flirted with the manageress, scattered wisecracks at sundry diners, and hatched a Messi Vs Ronaldo debate with the Spanish waiter.

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During our meal he'll admit that there is no correct answer to Messi Vs Ronaldo, just as there's none to whether he preferred his 11 Olympic Games to his 12 World Cups as RTÉ's anchor.

He has no doubt, however, that Muhammad Ali is The Greatest.

"He had everything," he says, "and self-promotion too of course. The unbelievable stuff he got away with! If he did it now, we'd call him bombastic."

Nobody would call Jimmy Magee bombastic, but there's not much Ali, or even PT Barnum, could teach him about showmanship. His love affair with the limelight began in the 1950s and the mutual pull has endured, in sports, music, light-entertainment – you name it, he's probably done it.

In Roly's it's impossible to tell good buddies from total strangers, as there's an upbeat word for all. He likes the place because: "The food is not just very good, but it's consistently very good, which is not easy."

He passes on the wine list, revealing he took his last drink in 1973.

Did the booze-soaked world of journalism become too much?

"That was part of it," he agrees, "but I just decided one day I wouldn't drink while my family were young."

He recalls he was leaving his daughter at a church that Ash Wednesday and, on something of a whim, decided to get ashes himself. He told himself he'd give up booze just for Lent, and never bothered with it again.

Making short work of his zingy crab and apple taster, he reflects: "I just put it out of my mind, like cigarettes two years earlier. Maybe I'm strong-willed, or thick. I refuse to give in. I'm convinced you can do anything that you want to."

He likes eating out, especially if he can combine it with his favourite hobby, which he calls "hotelology".

His fascination with hotels goes back to his childhood when they were a forbidden world "only for residents".

He explains: "I remember passing a hotel in Dundalk with a sign saying non-residents welcome, and I said to my dad 'What does that mean?'

"He replied: 'It means we can go in if we have the money.'

"So I said, 'well let's go in', and he said, 'ah, that'll be another day'. So now I've been in all the hotels."

He's certainly been in lots over his decades of globe-trekking. When on assignments abroad with RTÉ he'll upgrade "at my own expense" if somewhere takes his fancy. "Not that I want to be better than everyone else," he's keen to stress, "but so I can say 'Oh yeah, I've been at that hotel'. You know the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building, I had lunch and dinner in it. I've never stayed. I checked it recently. $1,100 a night. Too much!"

His father died young when Jimmy was 16. "I had to become the man of the house," he says. "I'd wanted to stay on at school, but that was the end of all those plans."

But he was a bright penny, and that eventually shone through after stints in a chemist's and on the cross-border railway.

When British Rail's southern operation shut in 1951, Jimmy's colleagues were despondent, but for him: "It was the beginning of my new life because I knew what I wanted to do."

He'd always known. He wanted to be a sports commentator. A decade earlier, aged 11, he'd written to Radio Éireann "in undisguised child's handwriting".

The response treated him as a grown up, saying don't call us, we'll call you. But he did call again aged 21 in 1956, and landed his first gig reporting on a hockey game.

He got it without any 'pull' and he believes pull has no place in broadcasting, once senior figures do their duty to give the best talent an even break.

Which brings us neatly to the accusations that RTÉ are stifling young talent by keeping on oldies like himself, Gaybo and Bill O'Herlihy, who've been around since the days of black and white.

He shrugs: "I don't know if they are or not, but the younger talent should be accommodated. But the others shouldn't' be excluded either. I've a basic thing, and it applies to sport, if you're 16 I would play you if you're good enough. If you're 40, same thing. It should be: 'Can you do it?' I know that before the last Olympics RTÉ were probably saying 'are they too much for Jimmy', but the 2012 Olympics were probably as good as I've ever been. I hope it will be the same for 2016."

He tucks into his Dublin Bay prawns, studiously avoiding the veg side dishes. What's this? I inquire. How did he ever grow up to be a top sports commentator without eating his greens?

"I hate cabbage and carrots and that stuff," he sniffs, "but I do eat spinach."

Born in New York during the Great Depression, Jimmy Magee is one of those public figures who seems to have been around forever. This impression is compounded by the fact that he seems to have hit on his trademark 'look' around 40 years back and his appearance has barely changed since.

A by-product of being around so long is that you can build up a level of trust with the public that can border on the parental.

In this light, I tell Jimmy that I felt deeply dismayed and let down when I first heard him defend Michelle Smith de Bruin's Olympic medals from Atlanta 1996 as untainted, despite the fact that a urine sample two years later was doctored with spirits.

In the face of all the facts he continues to defend her medals as legit, and I suggest he's in deep denial.

He groans: "No, I'm not in denial. It sounds like I'm protective of her but I'm not. She won three gold medals. She still has three golds because she never failed any tests."

But she was caught afterwards!

"But there again she didn't fail a test."

It's my turn to groan as he trots out his oft-repeated line that: "Her times weren't astonishing. They were astonishing improvements for her, but in the great scheme of things they weren't. She wouldn't have won the three previous Olympics at some of the events. She's now a barrister, and in the All-Ireland bar exam . . ."

She came third, I interrupt, knowing what comes next.

He presses on: "So I would ask, was that (her law results) because she was taking substances or was it because of hard work?"

It proves she's undeniably smart. But Lance Armstrong is undeniably smart and we can all see in retrospect he's a big cheat. Aren't you taking loyalty to Michelle beyond the beyond?

"Or maybe," he replies with a resolute shake of his head, "I'm practising compassion when everyone seems to be attacking her. Maybe I'm the counsel for the defence."

Agreeing to disagree, we revisit Jimmy's parallel career as Ireland's top pop picker. In 1962 he was already doing publicity for showbands when he pitched the idea of an Irish Top 30 to Radio Éireann.

"They said who's going to do it, and I said I'll do it. Between the request shows, distributors' figures and shop sales I compiled it."

The first Irish pop chart appeared in October 1962 and, to its compiler's delight, the first No 1 was his hero Elvis with 'She's Not You'.

I remind him that in 1964 he wrote the following in his pop column for the Spar housewives' magazine: "I've no doubts Cliff Richard is here to stay. So too are Cilla Black, The Beatles, Ray Charles and The Bachelors. And I'd like to think The Migil 5 as well."

The Migil 5 Jimmy?

He's no sooner exploded with laughter than the Memory Man pulls on that serious thinking cap. "What was their big hit? On Top Of Old Smokie or something like that?"

Astonishingly, after 48 years vanished in the mists of time, it was something like that. The Migel 5's lone big hit – a ska version of a country song – was 'Mocking Bird Hill'.

Impressive, or what?

Jimmy Magee discusses his memoir Memory Man with Darragh Maloney at Smock Alley at 2pm tomorrow as part of the Dublin Book Festival. Admission free.

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