The greatest Irish marathon runner ever?

Jim Hogan's book "The Irishman Who Ran For England"

The title says it all.

Who is the greatest Irish marathon runner ever?

Is it John Treacy, Irish men’s record holder (2:09:15, set in Boston in 1988) and Olympic silver medallist? Or Catherina McKiernan, our women’s record holder (2:22:23 in Amsterdam in 1998) and winner of the prestigious London and Berlin marathons?

In fact, it’s surely a man called Jim Hogan who’s virtually forgotten in Ireland now.

Hogan represented Ireland at the 1964 Olympics, where he challenged for gold and inadvertently had a notable cameo role in a classic Japanese arthouse film. He then won gold in the marathon at the European Athletics Championships in 1966.

So how come Hogan isn’t as celebrated as Ronnie Delany or Sonia O’Sullivan? It’s because he won that European gold medal while running for Great Britain, not Ireland. Hogan’s change of allegiance, hugely controversial at the time, was born of frustration with the Irish athletics authorities. It defined him so much that his fascinating autobiography is called ‘The Irishman Who Ran For England’. It’s a life story of adversity, determination and success, told without bitterness or boasting.

Nationality was not the only thing Jim Hogan changed. He was born Jim Cregan in County Limerick in 1933, a sickly newborn who somehow survived. After local success in Irish athletics, he moved to London in 1960 to work first in insurance and then as a parks groundskeeper – and due to a misunderstanding on his part about registration as an athlete in both Ireland and Britain, he took on the family name Hogan to compete on the English track and cross-country scene.

Racking up fine performances in Britain, Hogan was selected for the Irish team that competed at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. However, he did not live up to expectations. What’s worse, his disappointments featured prominently in the official film of the Games, ‘Tokyo Olympiad’ by Kon Ichikawa – one of the best sports documentaries ever and a worthy member of the canon of classic Japanese cinema.

First up was the 10,000 metres final – a bustling affair run on a cinder track. Picked out in the early laps by the director, perhaps due to his distinctive green vest and his bare feet, Hogan doesn’t feature again in the race footage until he drops out and steps off the track. The race went on to a thrilling climax, with a final lap of rough-house barging and a sensational sprint finish by Billy Mills of the United States (“Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” screamed the co-commentator in the live U.S. television coverage of the race, before letting out a joyous whoop.)

Hogan was also entered for the marathon. Reigning champion Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, who had run barefoot on the cobblestones of Rome in a symbolically-charged victory four years earlier, had his appendix removed only a few weeks before the Games and was not expected to defend his title. But nonetheless Bikila lined up at the start of the race.

After only 15 kilometres Bikila, evidently all the better for shedding his appendix, took off – and only Hogan went with him. At halfway Hogan was still staying with Bikila; by the 30 km point he was only 40 seconds behind and looking good for a medal.

Unfortunately, Bikila’s pace proved too damaging to Hogan – and again Ichikawa’s cameras were there to capture the moment when Hogan had to drop out. Walking for a few metres, Hogan then sits down on the kerb and asks the crowd for water. It’s a sad sight and a sad end to Hogan’s brave challenge for Olympic gold.

Hogan would have his reward in Budapest two years later when he won the marathon at the European Championships in a time of 2:20:04 – but by then he had exchanged his green Irish singlet for a white British one. He represented his adopted country again at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, finishing 27th in the 10,000 metres final.

At the time of writing, Hogan is living again in his native Co. Limerick, where he trains racehorses.

Here’s the fantastic marathon sequence from ‘Tokyo Olympiad’, featuring Toshiro Mayuzumi’s stirring score, Bikila’s imperious running style and Hogan’s disappointing withdrawal. You might recognise the clip from the start of ‘Marathon Man’, the 1976 thriller starring Dustin Hoffman:

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