Seán O’Connor pictured at home in Westport last week with his Olympic medals, also below, and inset, Seán the wrestler in his prime.
Remembering Olympic adventures
With the 2012 London games now over, Westport’s own Olympic competitor recalls his adventures half a century ago
IN the heady years of the swinging sixties, the world was a radically different place. When the decade started The Beatles were still being formed, JFK was campaigning to become the thirty-fifth President of the USA, while the Vietnam War raged and the Cold War inched towards a doomsday scenario.
Fifty-two years before the successful recent instalment of 2012 in London – in the Autumn of 1960 - the Olympics were held in Rome. Among the competitors and gold medal winners were the future king of Greece and a little-known boxer called Cassius Clay, who had not yet changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ireland sent 49 competitors to take part in 39 events across eight sports at that Olympics, and among them was now Westport resident Seán O’Connor.
A native of Dublin, Seán was living in Windsor in the UK at the time, where he operated a French polishing and antique restoration business – working for stars such as Elton John and Freddy Mercury, and also for the nearby royal household of Windsor Castle. As a young and fit man he took up wrestling as a hobby, and quickly excelled at the sport.
He would also represent Ireland at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964.
“I wasn’t the greatest sportsman by a long shot,” Seán admitted, “I have to tell you that honestly, but when I took up wrestling I was entered into the British and Irish championships and won them and next thing I was selected to go to the Olympics. I had only been wrestling for one year, I didn’t take it seriously, I was newly-married and we had just had a baby, it was supposed to be just a hobby. I wasn’t the best wrestler, but I was just strong and very, very fast. I could get out of trouble very fast.”
Seán says that the Irish delegation took the Olympics in Rome seriously. He was unsuccessful in Italy, but beat an Afghan competitor in Tokyo before being eliminated. He is quick to point out that the floor wrestling he competed in is nothing like the ‘acting’ that is now considered wrestling on TV.
“It is one of the oldest sports in the world, the ancient civilisations used to wrestle for sport, it was a great adventure being involved in it, especially at Olympic level,” said Seán, who recalled competing in packed arenas at The Olympics, but said this never made him nervous.
“My trainer told me before Rome that I wouldn’t win anything, and I was disappointed by that because everybody I met in England and Ireland I could beat, I thought it would be the same in the Olympics – but it wasn’t.”
Seán competed in the flyweight category in free-style wrestling. There was little financial support and he had to pay £40 towards his expenses. He was able to borrow money off a friend to go to Tokyo.
“Tokyo was a very good experience,” he recalls. “It was such an adventure, being so different and so far away. It was exciting.”
Seán’s family expanded rapidly in the early sixties, and his wife was in poor health, which meant that his wrestling career had to be put on hold. She died 14 years ago.
“I didn’t do any weightlifting or major training. I was naturally strong. The world’s greatest wrestler, George Hackenschmidt, said to me in 1964 that I was a very colourful wrestler because I was so fast,” he recalled last week.
Ireland sent two wrestlers to Rome, Joe Feeney from Dublin, who was a nine time British and Irish champion, and Seán.
“Joe was far superior to me but competed in a different weight.”
After Tokyo, Seán began concentrating on his business, building up a successful operation. In later years he began sharing his time between Ireland, the UK and a home on the Canary Island of Tenerife. He hasn’t wrestled in over 30 years.
He had many battles as a wrestler, but last March entered his greatest fight yet, when he was diagnosed with cancer on his spine.
His failing health has not dimmed his spirits one bit, but treatment keeps him from travelling to his beloved Tenerife. On the wall of his small cabin on the outskirts of Westport, he has his Olympic competitor medals proudly displayed, and his official Irish team blazers still fit as good as they did six decades ago.
Seán has family in the area, his brother Herbie runs an antiques business in Islandeady, while his niece Clodagh is in the same business in ‘The Gaiety’, also in Islandeady.
Seán is also an accomplished accordion player and dancer, and is friendly with Daniel O’Donnell, whom he used to meet regularly in Tenerife.
Watching the Olympics over the last few weeks has brought Seán to reminisce on his own adventures at the games. Ireland no longer competes in Olympic wrestling, but Seán O’Connor’s memories live on.
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