Sunday 19 November 2017

60 years ago today: Ronnie Delany's golden moment

Ronnie Delany crosses the finish line in the 1500m final at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne
Ronnie Delany crosses the finish line in the 1500m final at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne

Frank Greally

The only man in Ireland who can talk with full authority about winning an Olympic track title is Ronnie Delany - 60 years ago today the Dubliner attained immortality when he claimed the gold medal in the 1500m final at the Melbourne Games.

In front of a crowd of over 100,000 his time of 3:41.2 was an Olympic record.

It was already early morning, December 1 in Australia yesterday when at 4pm Irish time Delany was presented with a special trophy in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry by Athletics Ireland to mark the Diamond Jubilee of his famous victory.

And it was fitting that the presentation to Ronnie was made by Fr Peter O'Donoghue, president of Villanova University, attending the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards in support of current Villanova track and cross-country coach Marcus O'Sullivan, who was receiving the Hall of Fame Award.

Villanova University in the USA was Delany's proving ground all those years ago and he remains grateful for the opportunity to go there on an athletic scholarship in 1954 at age 19 after abandoning a blossoming career in the Irish Army Cadet School. Even at such an early age, it seemed like Delany had a sense of his own destiny.

"With great excitement I enlisted into the Cadet School at the Curragh in Kildare," he recalls. "But it did not take me long to learn that I could not accommodate my twin ambitions to be an officer and an athlete.

Delany receiving a special award at the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards in Santry yesterday. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Delany receiving a special award at the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards in Santry yesterday. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Regime

"The military training was going to take absolute precedence and rightly so. It was not possible or acceptable to attempt to pursue further my by now established daily training regime.

"I had to make a decision: abandon my ambition to be an athlete or resign from Cadet School. I opted for the latter, such was my conviction that I was destined to be a great athlete, and immediately sought honorary discharge from the Army."

His decision did not sit well with his parents - especially his father.

"To say my father was aghast at the very suggestion that I would leave the Army is putting it mildly," he says. "I had to stand up to him in the most respectful way and convince him that my mind was made up. He could not condone what he considered was a reckless decision on my part.

"He was right, of course. I was throwing away a lifetime career opportunity on a wild ambition to become the best runner I could possibly be. There was no real logic to what I was proposing to do, other than my own instinct that I was right."

And so he proved to be. Delany carries his 81 years well and attributes his well-being to his wife Joan and his children and grandchildren.

In his youth, Delany played rugby, tennis and hockey, and boxed. He was 17 by the time coach Jack Sweeney discovered his talent for running.

"Jack taught me the importance of making one dynamic move in a race, and only one," Delany says. "That theory I carried straight through to the Olympics.

"Anyone who reviews my Olympic final can see how I moved down the back stretch, progressed and then made this one dynamic move."

But it was going to Villanova and linking up with coach Jumbo Elliott that proved to be a key factor in Delany's athletic development.

"My formative years were only important in identifying that I had talent," he says. "America was the key thing and that's why I went there. There was no other way, in those days, that you could become a great athlete, because you did not have the opportunity to compete.

"There weren't any jet aircraft, there was little or no money and there were no big European Grand Prix meets. So if you were going to stay in Ireland, you ran cross-country and then you had only four or five track meets in the summer - that's all you had. I went to America because I knew I'd have an indoor and outdoor track programme."

Delany's build-up to the Melbourne Olympics was far from ideal. During the summer of 1956 he got spiked in the heel in an event in Paris and he did little training or racing for the rest of the summer.

He had already broken four minutes for the mile - 3:59.1 - but on the track in London that summer of 1956 he could only manage 4:06.4 for the mile and later in Dublin he struggled home in a pedestrian 4:20 in another mile event. Back in America in the autumn of that year he was training more in hope than belief that he might be selected by the Olympic Council of Ireland for Melbourne on the back of his earlier achievements.

Finally, in October of the year, he learned from a newspaper report that he was going to be selected for the 1500m in the Olympics. It was only on the day before he left New York on the first leg of his trip to Melbourne that Delany received official confirmation from the OCI that he had been selected.

"Before setting out for Melbourne I knew that Jumbo believed in me," he recalls.

"This, above all, gave me great confidence. Jumbo's attitude regarding winning really sunk home. He had me worked up to such a pitch that nothing else was going to satisfy me.

"I wanted to win and I would win for him, my country and myself. Jumbo, my team-mates and my father were probably the only ones who gave me more than a snowball's chance in hell.

"The press had written me off because of my poor showing in Dublin and in their opinion (Australia's) John Landy was favourite to take the gold medal."

However, the American Track & Field News magazine had installed Delany as favourite based on his prolific performances on the US circuit.

"I was probably 100/1 in Ireland and even money in America," he says.

The trip to Melbourne was demanding too as air travel at the time was done in short hops, never more than 3,000 miles at a time.

"The maximum speed of the aircraft that time was 250 miles per hour and maximum flying height was 10,000 feet," Delany explains. "We travelled to Melbourne in series of short flights: New York, Honolulu, Cantor, Fiji and when we landed on each island we were greeted by a Columban priest who blessed us. We must have been the most blessed team in the Games."

Having strolled through qualifying, in the final, Delany recalls, "my only goal was to win. I wasn't thinking about second or third or running well. The slogan in the dressing room in Villanova was 'Win or Bust' and that was the only philosophy I knew or needed to know.

"I believe in destiny but that you play your own part in it too. The important thing is the shape of the race, to be in a position to strike and make that one dynamic move to win - just as Jack Sweeney told me as a young athlete."

Heels

With 350 metres left to run, Delany was still back in 10th as Britain's Brian Hewson hit the front with local favourite Landy on his heels.

Then, Delany made his move around the final bend: a winning move that took him clear to immortality. As he crossed the finish, he spread his arms wide - the same as he did at his last training session in America before going to Melbourne.

"My last training session was in California and American coach Brutus Hamilton had me practise crossing the finish line, making sure that I ran through it," he says.

There is an iconic image from the event where Delany is pictured kneeling in prayer after crossing the finish line. He had run his final 200m in 25.6 seconds and fulfilled his destiny.

Irish Independent

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