Ireland has won only two Olympic medals in athletics in my lifetime. Both were silver, and I didn’t see either of them happening.
Sonia O’Sullivan’s 5,000 metre final in 2000 took place one weekday morning while I worked away in misplaced apathy. For the other, I have a better excuse – it was well past my bedtime.
The 1984 Games in Los Angeles were the first Olympics of which I was aware, having only been four weeks old for Montreal ’76 and four years for Moscow ’80. (Luckily this meant I was too young to witness the agony of Eamonn Coghlan’s two fourth-place finishes.)
But the time difference between Europe and California, added to early-bedtime enforcement for this 8-year-old, meant that I saw none of it live, only highlights or news reports the next day. Carl Lewis winning four golds; Mary Decker tripping over Zola Budd; Steve Ovett stepping off the track – iconic moments that happened without me; I slept through them all. And that would include the marathon, the last event of the Games and the most memorable of all for Irish people.
In fact, for quality and drama the 1984 Olympic men’s marathon may be the greatest marathon ever. Apart from the strong field, the fast times and the surprise result, there was a sprint finish for second place.
(As an aside: the women’s marathon from the same Olympics was almost as impressive and dramatic – and it made history.)
The starting line-up featured the leading marathon runners of the time: Alberto Salazar of the United States, Rod Dixon of New Zealand, Toshihiko Seko of Japan and reigning world champion and record-holder Rob de Castella of Australia. These four were so strong that the in-form Charlie Spedding of Great Britain, who had won the Houston and London marathons earlier in the year, wasn’t considered a favourite.
Rubbing shoulders with the experts were some notable Johnny-come-latelies. Carlos Lopes of Portugal and John Treacy of Ireland were both two-time winners of the World Cross Country Championship. Lopes, silver medallist in the 1976 Olympic 10,000 metres, was hoping to complete only his second marathon – his first-ever attempt, in the 1982 New York Marathon won by Salazar, ended prematurely when he collided with a spectator. And another collision almost kept him out of this race – ten days beforehand, he was in a minor traffic accident that stopped him from running until the marathon itself.
Treacy had never competed at the distance before. Ninth in the 10,000 metres final a week earlier, he had collapsed on the track in his 1980 Olympic 10,000 metres qualifying round due to heat exhaustion and dehydration. On that form, an Olympic marathon in the oppressive temperatures of a Californian summer seemed a considerable challenge for him.
Completing the Irish contingent were Jerry Kiernan and Dick Hooper, both former winners of the Dublin Marathon and figureheads of the Irish marathon boom in the early 1980s.
The race was as intense as the heat. No runner made an early break; at halfway all the favourites were running strongly and still in the large leading pack. So too were Lopes and Treacy.
But gradually the expected contenders began to wilt. Salazar, who once won a Boston Marathon on a hot day without drinking any water, seemed to be paying for recent years of extreme effort. Spedding, in his autobiography ‘From Last to First’, recalls that de Castella tried to go with a brief injection of pace by Joseph Nzau of Kenya, but soon paid for that exertion and fell back. Dixon and Seko also lost touch with the leaders.
And who were those leaders? They were the unfancied Lopes, Treacy and Spedding. As Treacy recalled in a public interview in 2004, Lopes had begun to increase his pace gradually after 15 miles, and the Irishman and Englishman decided to hang in with him and try holding out for a medal.
Approaching the stadium and the finish, these three were clear of the field. Then the Portuguese runner, fresh from his ten-day enforced lay-off, pulled away definitively and ran in victorious, his time of 2:09:21 remaining an Olympic record until 2008.
But the real drama was yet to come. Treacy entered the stadium in second place but only a few strides ahead of Spedding. After 26 gruelling miles, the two would have to battle it out right to the line.
Somehow, Treacy pulled out a 67-second lap of the track to hang on for silver, with Spedding pushing him all the way. As Eamonn Sweeney pointed out in ‘Irish Runner’ magazine in July 2011, Treacy’s time of 2:09:56 would have been good enough for gold in every subsequent Olympic marathon until 2008.
Adding to the Irish celebrations was Kiernan’s excellent 9th place finish in 2:12:20, a time that would have won gold in the 1992 and 1996 Games. (You can hear Kiernan’s memories of the race in this Radio Kerry interview from 2008.) The other Irishman, Hooper, came in 51st in 2:24:41.
As for the pre-race favourites, de Castella recovered to finish fifth, Dixon was tenth, and Seko and Salazar crossed the line in 14th and 15th place respectively.
For Irish people who remember it, Treacy’s medal-winning run is inseparable from the TV commentary by Jimmy Magee. Mostly associated with football and boxing rather than athletics, Magee is something of an acquired taste as a commentator. He doesn’t have the authority, drama or turn of phrase of his BBC contemporary David Coleman or his RTE successor George Hamilton. British sports viewers might recognise something of John Motson in Magee’s un-musical voice and reliance on historical trivia.
As Treacy and Spedding sprinted round the last bend, Magee delivered what would become his most famous commentary. In the time it took for Treacy to cover the last 100 metres, Magee listed all 12 previous Irish Olympic medal winners, ending on the mysterious-sounding “Wilkins and Wilkinson” just in time to add Treacy’s name as he crossed the line. It captured the sense of history in Treacy’s achievement – and Ireland’s underachievement at the Olympics, if our entire medal haul could be listed completely in ten seconds.
Also memorable, and perhaps better in capturing the unfolding events rather than reciting trivia, was Magee’s description of an exhausted but triumphant Treacy as “the little man with the great heart”.
Here’s Jimmy Magee recalling the race and his commentary: