Sunday 16 June 2019

Sinead Kissane: Legendary O'Riordan a huge inspiration to generations on the track and in journalism

Tom O’Riordan in action during the 1966 Amateur Athletic Union and NACA Championship in Gormanston. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Tom O’Riordan in action during the 1966 Amateur Athletic Union and NACA Championship in Gormanston. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

The final question I asked Tom O'Riordan was the first time he shrugged off giving an answer during an interview at his home in Dublin this week.

"What advice would you give me for writing this piece about you?" I asked Tom.

He laughed.

But later, as I walked out the front door, Tom called from the sitting room: "Put away those notes and write from the head."

Writing and running was what Tom O'Riordan did. He turned 80 in July this year with nearly half of those years spent as a sports journalist with Independent Newspapers (and more years as a freelancer). It was a career he formally started the same year he qualified for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

Tom's time as an amateur athlete rolled into his job as a reporter. Journalists are told to know their subject; well, Tom was his own subject on a few occasions.

Sinead Kissane with Tom O’Riordan in his Clonskeagh home
Sinead Kissane with Tom O’Riordan in his Clonskeagh home

After one of the seven senior National Cross-Country titles he won, Tom remembers still wearing his spikes and running gear as he rang in the report of the race he just came first in from a public pay-phone on the course.

Writing from the head must have been easy when your heart was fully in it.

Tom also 'double-jobbed' a few times when he ran in the World Cross-Country Championships. "I had to find out who the winners were and the times and the team race and all that. It was a bit of an effort but I managed it. I was never sued for writing the wrong stuff!" he smiles.

Opinions "The race was the most important. I didn't even think about the report until it was all over. I never found it very difficult. I could relate and once you got a few basic facts you were away."

Tom wasn't afraid to back up his opinions as an athletics journalist. After being critical of the Ireland Cross-Country team, he was asked to take over as team coach for the 1979 World Championships in Limerick.

Tom took it on and organised training sessions at the Phoenix Park for a very talented group of athletes. Ireland went on to win team silver with John Treacy retaining the title.

"It was a great achievement. I found great satisfaction in that," Tom admits.

Of course, he still had to file a report on the race but at least he didn't have to track down the coach of the team for quotes.

Tom's athletics career took off when he was offered a four-year scholarship by Idaho State College in 1957 at a time when only a handful of Irish athletes went to America on scholarship.

A report from the college described Tom as having the "makings of a 'second Ron Delany". His coach, Dubby Holt, also said Tom's arrival should "inspire the rest of the track team since runners from that part of the world are very hard workers".

Tom worked hard. He reckons he broke around 20 records in Idaho State College and by the time his scholarship near the Rocky Mountains finished, he ran in competitions in every state in America.

His achievements included the NAIA Cross-Country title in 1960 and, a year later, he finished fifth in the NCAA Cross-Country.

After returning home, 1963 was a vintage year as Tom broke Irish records and finished the season with times in the top five in the world for the two-mile and three-mile events.

It's over half a century since the 1964 Olympics but time hasn't dimmed the sense of regret Tom has over not qualifying for the 5,000m final.

The Olympic gold was won by American Bob Schul who Tom spent the previous summer training with in California. Another friend of his, American Billy Mills, won the 10,000m final.

What was it like seeing one of his training partners win the final?

"God, it was great. But it would make you feel like, God, what were you doing wrong. 'Twas a bit of a disappointment now that I didn't make the Olympic final because I was capable of it and I was fit enough but I just didn't do it. And that lived with me for a good while after. It was a great disappointment to me. Huge," Tom admits.

"It's in your mind and it never leaves your mind. Well, it does leave your mind but it's a bit of a regret that's in you. At the time it was a bit hard to take."

Tom would go on to cover every Summer Olympic Games up to and including Sydney 2000 as a journalist. But sitting in the front room of his home listening to him recall his own Olympic experience reminded me that there's a duality in everything - regret in what many others would view as an achievement in becoming the first athlete from Kerry to be selected for an Olympics track event.

Listening to Tom also made me realise how little of the full picture I knew.

It's hard to write this piece solely from the head because Tom is my uncle. He rarely spoke about his achievements but we knew enough since we were very young to always be proud to call him our uncle.

Every time he went to the Olympics he brought home presents for his nieces and nephews (I still have the T-shirt from Seoul '88 at home somewhere).

Tom's the reason I wanted to get into journalism and why there was always a great interest in athletics in our family.

He motivated plenty of others. "As a young boy growing up, I knew that if I could beat Tom O'Riordan, that would be a big deal and I would make it onto the world stage," Eamonn Coghlan told me at the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year awards this week. "I left Metropolitan Harriers way back in 1974 to join Donore Harriers. Why? To train with Tom O'Riordan and that's why I felt that if I could beat Tom, not just in training but in a race, I was going to make it."

What stood out about interviewing Tom was how he constantly mentioned friendships and those who were kind to him. Money was tight so he travelled home to Kerry only once during his four-year stint in Idaho but his coach looked out for him and every Christmas had him over for Christmas dinner. "He was a father figure to me, and his wife as well, and I was made to feel so welcome," Tom recalls.

Tom also struck up great friendships with sports people like John Treacy, who used to stay with him in Dublin, and the late Páidí ó Sé. "I was great friends with Páidí. I gave him a lot of advice and he appreciated it. Advice about training, squad training, training on short hills. Páidí used to love the short hills," Tom says. "He was an amazing man. The last man in the world you would expect to die."

Inside Tom's office in his home, amidst all the medals, memorabilia, photos and athletics book, is a poster of the All-Ireland-winning Kerry team of Fitzgerald and Moynihan. Tom loves Kerry football and rarely, if ever, tipped any other team to win the Sam Maguire.

Access "I had great access, that's right. You could walk into a dressing-room and just talk to anyone. I was over in Killarney one time and Mick (O'Dwyer) said: 'Go away in there and talk to the lads' (in the middle of the training field). It was unbelievable," Tom laughs.

The flip-side was Dublin. "The Dubs, that was a kind of a difficult situation. I would often go to Parnell Park when they were training. Oh, I wasn't very popular around Dublin now!"

Life has slowed down for Tom after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. "There's a fear of falling - you lose your balance. My mind seems to be reasonably ok. It's been a bit of a struggle with it now," Tom admits.

"I don't find it a cross to bear or anything like that. I suppose as the doctor said to me: 'Parkinson's - it won't kill you but you will die with it.'

"I have to be truthful with you and say that I've had a good life. I wouldn't change it for anything. I won no Olympic medal but I don't have any real regrets or anything like that," Tom adds as his phone pings with a message from one of his sons.

I leave soon after, grateful that the line of work he inspired me to do was an excuse to spend time before Christmas with a person we all look up to in our family.

Happy Christmas to you and your family.

Irish Independent

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