Sunday 21 January 2018

Another golden moment for our greatest Olympian Ronnie

cliona foley

COULD there be a more perfect setting or time to recognise Ireland's greatest Olympian? Believe it or not it was in legendary Croke Park, as a 12-year-old, that Ronald Michael Delany got his first taste of athletics success.

The Dublin primary schools used to hold their annual sports event here and Ronnie was once one quarter of a winning relay team.

His school -- the neighbouring O'Connell's CBS -- also held their own sports here, where he once also won a wheelbarrow race -- apparently as adept on his hands as on his feet!

It is particularly timely too, considering that 54 years ago, when the country was similarly gripped by the twin scourges of recession and emigration, that Ronnie lifted the nation's collective spirit and confidence with that epic, barnstorming 1,500m victory in Melbourne.

But, above all, it is the fact that he was surrounded last night by such a wealth of eclectic, world-class Irish sporting talent that makes it particularly apposite.

Few will appreciate last night's company as much as Ronnie, and not just because he is a former chairman of both the Irish Sport and Tourism Councils.

Ronnie didn't actually start racing competitively until he was 17, when he won the Leinster schools half-mile title in the Iveagh Grounds wearing his cricket whites!

Indeed, he believes that playing a broad variety of sports -- the family home in Sandymount backed onto Claremont Tennis Club and Railway Union -- developed his teenage strength and stamina which later blossomed into such greatness under coach Jumbo Elliot in Villanova University.

In those pre-live TV and internet days we missed out seeing, first-hand, his unsurpassed 40 straight 'indoor' victories in America from 1956-59, including 33 mile races.

Ronnie was part of a legendary Villanova team from 1954-58. With just six athletes (three of them Olympians), they won the US Collegiate title in '57, anchored by the famous 'Delany Double' -- he won the mile and half-mile titles within 40 minutes of each other.

Some were lucky enough to be at Morton Stadium in August '58 for the greatest mile race in history. Not only did Herb Elliot set a world record, but the next three men home, including Ronnie, broke John Landy's old 3:58 mark.

Ronnie's home appearances back then attracted unprecedented crowds of 25,000 to 30,000 and his Olympic success was the direct catalyst for legendary Clonliffe man Billy Morton to build Santry Stadium.

But statistics and trophies do not elaborate on the steely strength of this man. They don't show how, having secured a prestigious place in cadet school, and despite strong opposition from his father, he walked away from the army to maximise his sporting gift.

Or how, hit by recurring Achilles problems which curtailed his competitiveness at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he retired from the sport in 1962 when he was only 26; a man who always raced to win and could not countenance doing anything less.

Last night, the seemingly ageless Ronnie (74) looked as he always does -- lean, fit and elegant, the quintessential gentleman.

But anyone who has ever seen the photo of himself and Don Bowden training on a deserted beach in California in March 1960, which features in his 2006 autobiography 'Staying the Distance', got a telling glimpse of his inner self.

Powering bare-footed, up a giant sand-dune that towers vertiginously above them, they look like two ants, surrounded only by sea and earth, their bodies straining to the limit of their endurance.

Ronnie Delany had the talent and dedication to make it always look easy but that seminal image, at least, captured just how hard he worked.

Irish Independent

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