IT’S not often that you get to meet an Olympic hero - and in my case that’s probably a blessing. My last - and only, to date - encounter with a member of that elite species was quite forgettable, for me, and even more so for the unfortunate hero, I’m afraid.
The occasion was a gala awards function and I was assigned the important task of sitting beside the guest of honour - none other than 1984 Olympic silver medallist, John Treacy (well I think it just came in the cut that I ended up sitting beside him, really, but nonetheless it was an important task no matter how inadvertently assigned). A pleasant, if not very talkative, man, we spoke about a number of different topics, few of which I can remember right now. But we were getting on fine and I was playing the role of hostess/chaperone/person in the next seat with reasonable aplomb, I felt. Until we hit on the topic of the 1984 Olympics that is, a topic one would imagine to be fairly safe given that (a) it was the biggest moment of his career, (b) I knew this and admired his achievement, and (c) I had seen footage of the race and knew what an extraordinary finish it had been. Part (c) seemed to erase itself from my memory, however, in the moments that followed. (For the uninitiated, John Treacy battled brilliantly to win a silver medal in the marathon at the 1984 Olympic Games in searing heat in Los Angeles.)
I asked him what it was like to win the medal and he responded, not very memorably or passionately, which doesn’t quite excuse what I asked next, but may go part of the way to explaining why I felt the need to ask a follow-up question. Looking him in the eye and with absolute seriousness, I said to one of Ireland’s greatest ever Olympic heroes - ‘so John, do you ever regret that you didn’t finish first?’. Looking me in the eye, his face blank and tone calm, he replied ‘no, I was happy with second’. “Fair enough,” I mumbled (or something equally lame), as the stupidity of the question and audacity of its implication finally dawned on me - a tad late.
In mitigation, may I rewind to two nights previous to the event when I attended a GAA seminar addressed by a sports psychologist who had worked with some of Ireland’s top athletes and swimmers. He recalled a story about another great Irish athlete, Eamon Coughlan, who famously finished fourth in a number of major races. When Coughlan was once asked how he managed to push himself that little bit further, how he motivated himself to finish third instead of fourth, Coughlan replied that he never aimed to finish third in a race, he always aimed to win. I thought it a fascinating anecdote at the time, but not quite so fascinating that I dared recount it to John Treacy after insulting him. Some damage is just undoable.
I was reminded of my faux pas (if I may be permitted the use of such a euphemism) last Friday night when watching the superb RTÉ programme about the great Ronnie Delany and his Olympic gold medal win in Melbourne in 1956. It was my first time seeing footage of the race, and the remarkable nature of the victory - as he swept outside from the back of the group entering the last bend, overtook the three leading runners entering the home straight and powered home to win by a significant margin and in record time - blew me away. So too did his reaction: he raised his arms in victory as he crossed the line, saluted the crowd and then dropped to the ground and blessed himself, thanking God for giving him the gift of winning an Olympic medal. He was a man of faith then, Delany recalled on the programme, and still has great faith now. Never have an athlete’s words been so touching - or so heartfelt. Fifty years ago, being an Olympic athlete was not the status-conferrer that it is today, and in Delany’s case his very participation in the Olympics was in doubt until weeks beforehand. Yet when he won - against so many odds - his instinctive reaction was to thank what he called ‘a higher power’ for allowing him achieve such glory.
Listening to him speak, I thought ‘I would love to meet Ronnie Delany’ … and then my mind wandered to my last meeting with an Olympic athlete … and I concluded that never meeting me probably won’t do Ronnie any harm.