Friday 23 February 2018

Glory days of a true Olympian

Athlete Denis Cussen thrilled crowds with his record-breaking exploits in the Twenties, writes Derek Fanning

LIFE is often unfair and unjust. People are acclaimed when they don't deserve such acclaim, while other hugely talented people are overlooked or forgotten.

In this year of the Olympics, it is worth recalling former Irish Olympians who perhaps didn't achieve the Olympic glory that they sought but who nonetheless were fine athletes and deserve more recognition than they currently receive.

One of these is Limerick man Denis Cussen who was born in Newcastle West in 1901, into a sporting-mad family. Eventually, he would set an Irish record for the 100 yards race and would win 15 caps with the Irish rugby team.

Spectators were thrilled at his exploits and newspaper articles from the period reflect the fact. For example, there was his 100-yard dash record. This happened on Sunday, June 24, 1928, during the NACA championships in Croke Park and the record which Cussen ran was 9.8 seconds. This record, while being equalled, was never afterwards beaten in Ireland. At the time, it was also a world record for a grass track.

The journalist wrote that the pistol shot "released the quartet as one man, and as one man they ran together for 20 or 30 yards. Here Cussen and Eustace drew away from the others, side by side up to the half-way mark. An extraordinary change then came over Cussen's style, and he shot away from Eustace who seemed to be running backwards by contrast.

"His running captured the imagination of the crowd who started to their feet, cheering and shouting. The cheering spurred him on to a further effort and he literally burned up the last 10 yards and flung himself at the tape as if his life depended on it. He broke the tape to a regular salvo of cheers, which was succeeded by an eerie silence as everyone listened intently for the time. When a world record time for a grass track, 9.8 seconds, was announced, the cheering broke out anew, for everyone felt that they had seen a truly memorable performance."

These were clean runners, running to the utmost of their natural ability. They were adhering to the ancient Greek ideal, which is people competing against each other to the best of their ability without the assistance of any enhancing substances. Another element of that Greek ideal is a spirit of fair play and decency, which may even mean assisting your fellow competitors.

What also stands out from the report is the extraordinary change during the race in Cussen's style, which seems to show that he had another gear in him. The report also highlights the importance of the crowd in sporting contests, with the crowd being referred to (in rugby) as a '16th man'. The energy from the crowd, the cheering, went into Cussen and spurred him on to make an extra effort.

Not long afterwards Cussen travelled to Amsterdam with the Irish Olympic team where sadly he didn't reach the dizzy heights of Croke Park. He made it through to the second heat of the 100 metres, but was knocked out after finishing fifth. The eventual winner of the 100 metres was Percy Williams from Canada.

Dr Pat O'Callaghan from Kanturk was the great success story for Ireland in the 1928 Olympics because he won the hammer throw event, which was Ireland's first Olympic medal competing under its own flag.

Other athletic disciplines in which Cussen excelled were the long jump and the 220 yard dash. He was the Irish long jump champion in 1921 and 1922 and the 220 yard champion in 1922.

His secondary school education had been in Blackrock College where rugby was enormously popular. He played at centre for the school's first team and scored many tries. He won three Leinster Senior Schools Cup medals in a row, captaining the team in the 1918 final and again in 1919. Cussen played for the Leinster Schools team while in Blackrock and as a schoolboy was an all-rounder in athletics doing very well in sprints, long jump, high jump, hop step and jump and the shot putt.

After school he entered Trinity College Dublin where he studied medicine and impressed everybody with his skill on the rugby field. He won his first cap for Ireland on February 12, 1921. The opposition that day were England, who defeated Ireland 15-0. Cussen played for Ireland on 15 occasions over a six-year period and scored five tries.

He played with a number of very skillful Irish players such as Ernie Crawford, George Stephenson, Mark Sugden, Jimmy Clinch and Eugene Davy. His greatest moment in an Irish jersey was in Lansdowne Road in 1926 when Ireland defeated England 19-15. On two occasions during that game Sugden sold a dummy, passed the ball to Cussen who scored two tries. A journalist wrote that Cussen plunged over the line "festooned with Saxons"!

Another journalist wrote: "Cussen would have knocked over a stone wall; short, barrel chested and a sprint champion, he fairly mowed down the opposition on his way to the line. There were no tricks here, just plain strength and courage, but what a painful problem for the defenders!"

Denis Cussen qualified as a doctor in 1925 and his first appointment was to St Mary's Hospital in London. He was Medical Officer to the British Olympic team in Melbourne in 1956, where he was one of the first to congratulate Ronnie Delaney on his victory in the 1,500 metres, and Rome in 1960. He died at his home in Richmond, Surrey on December 15, 1980.

Sunday Independent

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