Wednesday 13 December 2017

Maeve Kyle, our first female Olympian

Overcoming fears about going to Japan for the 1964 Games, athlete Maeve Kyle is thrilled they're returning to Tokyo in 2020

Maeve Kyle at her Ballymena home with her dog Connie
Maeve Kyle at her Ballymena home with her dog Connie
Maeve Kyle competing in the far left lane during the Olympic Games.
Maeve Kyle competing at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo
Maeve with the other members of the 1956 Olympic team

John Costello

It may have been par for the course back in 1950s Ireland for the nation's first female Olympian to be branded "a disgrace to Irish motherhood and the Irish nation".

However, after already competing in two Olympic Games, when Maeve Kyle journeyed to compete in Tokyo in 1964 it was not the hostility from a conservative Ireland that filled her thoughts, but the horror that had befallen part of her family during World War II.

"I had gone to Tokyo with very mixed expectations," says Maeve, who turns 85 on October 6. "I had relatives that had suffered at the hands of the Japanese during World War II and I was concerned about what type of place I was going to experience."

Growing up in Kilkenny, Maeve witnessed her grandmother's distress when the family of her cousin had been captured by the Japanese near the end of the war and held in a prison camp. They had been living and working in Tokyo, and were rounded up along with other westerners as the tide began to turn against Japan in the war.

"My grandmother had even written to De Valera to try to see if he could help," she says. "I still have the handwritten response from De Valera. Thankfully, despite the Irish government being unable to secure their release, they survived the camp. But because of what happened I just thought the Japanese must be very cruel people."

However, when it was revealed Tokyo would once again be hosting the Games, this time in 2020, Maeve was filled with delight rather than trepidation.

"I was absolutely thrilled when I heard the news," she says. "I must admit I was kind of shocked when I found the people were so gentle and kind. I got to love Japan even though I had expected to hate it."

Indeed, after growing up in an Ireland that viewed female athletes similar "to how the Taliban view Muslim women," Maeve was always willing to challenge preconceptions.

"I realised it is important not to live by what other people think," she says. "It is easy to forget that this was a time when there was a belief that just because you were a woman you could not do certain things."

So, not surprisingly, when Maeve was picked for her first Olympics in 1956 in Melbourne she faced a stern backlash from certain critical voices. Letters of complaint were sent to national papers, some passers by would shout abuse and she even had objects thrown at her while out training.

"Ireland was a difficult place back then for women participating in sport," says Maeve, who also competed in tennis, swimming, sailing and cricket, and played international hockey for Ireland. "So, when I was young and married with a second child, people in conservative Ireland did not believe I should be running around the world leaving my husband and children. But my family did not take any notice and thought the letters written to the papers were hilarious. I grew up with a belief I was perfectly entitled to do what the boys were doing."

But the world was changing and Maeve was intent to pave the way for the likes of Sonia O'Sullivan and Katie Taylor, by becoming Ireland's first female sports star.

"At the Olympics in Rome the only track events for women were the 100m and the 200m," she says. "They didn't think women could run much further than that! In Tokyo, which was my last Olympics, they added the 400m and 800m. I competed in the two and reached the semi-finals of both. I ran two or three rounds of the 400m followed by two or three rounds of the 800m right afterwards. So maybe of I had only competed in one I might have made the final. But you never know these things."

Two years later in the 1966 European Indoor Athletics Championships, Maeve went on to win a bronze in the 400m and after her groundbreaking career went on to become coach.

"I am not jealous of the athletes today," she says. "I think the young women are marvellous but there is so much pressure to go and win. People are considered to have not succeeded if they don't make the final or take home a medal. But hopefully the Irish athletes that will compete in Tokyo will realise there are no losers in the Olympics. Once an Olympian, always an Olympian."

There will be special moments for all the athletes who follow in her footsteps and make the journey to Japan.

"The great thing is that you can sit down for breakfast and be sitting with six nobodies or six superstars," she says with a laugh. "I remember in Rome in 1960 sitting down to eat with a young Mohammad Ali. He was a lovely guy and only 19 at the time. But you could feel he had greatness ahead of him. And it is moments like that in your career that always stay with you."

Irish Independent

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