Delany goes for gold again as champion of the elderly
Runner Ronnie Delany, who won Olympic gold in 1956, was a natural fit as Friends of the Elderly ambassador
Ronnie Delany, the Irish Olympian who won the 1,500 metres gold medal in Melbourne in 1956. He is the ambassador for Friends of the Elderly, having taken over from the late Maeve Binchy. Photograph: Eric Luke
It is 57 years since Ronnie Delany ran the three minutes and 42.2 seconds that would define the rest of his life.
The passing of the years has not diminished the scale of his achievements in winning the Olympic 1,500 metres title in Melbourne. Irish Olympians who reach the pinnacle remain as rare as they are celebrated.
There were 36 long years between Delany and Michael Carruth’s gold medal in Barcelona in 1992.
Delany was just 21 when he won in Melbourne. He’s now 78. “It’s scary, sometimes I have to do the sums,” he says.
Most middle-distance runners peak in their mid-20s. He took his opportunity early and was finished by his mid-20s.
In his lapel is a gold badge with a symbol of the Olympics and the year 1956. It is given to medallists to wear, is unique to them and so precious that he’s made a mould of it in case he ever loses it.
He stopped running (“period”) when he was 26, figuring that it was difficult to become a leisure runner when you have been an Olympic champion. Instead he took up rugby, squash and tennis to stay fit. Now he swims a couple of times a week.
Big welcome home
His win came at perhaps the nadir in the State’s fortunes. Emigration, poverty and a lack of self-confidence were endemic in Irish society. Thousands turned out in Christmas week 1956 to welcome him home.
“I say it modestly and historically but I gave the country a huge lift. We were a depressed country. We had very low levels of income and standards of living,” he recalls.
“In sport, specifically, my victory said that you could come from here, where we were always being negative, and suddenly this young fellow from Ireland goes off and beats the world. The statement was that we can beat the world.”
At the time he was a student in Villanova University in the United States, the alma mater of generations of talented Irish athletes. He went there in 1954, as he recalls, wearing a tweed suit.
The other students wore chinos and colourful shirts. The old world meeting the new.
“What I remember about going to America was how prosperous it was and I was middle class.
“My first impression was colour. I could see yellow Buicks and red Thunderbirds. In Ireland Henry Ford’s maxim that you could have any colour as long as it was black still applied.”
He is now “only 78”, has been married to Joan for 52 years, is in excellent good health and remains as sharp-minded and articulate as he ever was. “I’m lucky because my family tree has longevity in it,” he remarks. And not just longevity but good health too. His mother lived in to her 90s, his father into his 80s. An aunt even wrote a book in her 90s.
“Health is your gift. I still work. I occasionally make a few bob,” says the freelance marketing consultant.
“Physiologically, I’m not ancient, but I’m quite elderly. I’m not as pushed to make money as I have been. I survive well and I live well.”
An iconic figure
He is still recognised wherever he goes in Ireland, even among the majority who were not alive when he won in Melbourne.
“I still am an iconic figure,” he says matter-of-factly. “I can’t go into anywhere in Ireland without being saluted.”
Because of his profile, because he is so ageless in so many ways, Ronnie Delany was a natural fit for the Friends of the Elderly.
He took over from the late Maeve Binchy as the ambassador for the Friends of the Elderly after being asked by its chairman, Jim O’Brien.
“She did a great job because she was so identifiable,” he says.
“Why did I do it? You do it because you are asked and because you think you can make a slight difference. The message is simple. It is ‘look out for the elderly’,” he says.
“Look out for your neighbour. Don’t leave it to someone else. If you don’t see the curtains pulled or if the mail is not being collected, do something.”
Loneliness does not affect him as he has four children and 15 grandchildren and a thriving business/social life, but it does affect others.
“The biggest problem that the elderly have is loneliness. Ill-health is a problem, immobility is a problem. I think St Vincent de Paul did a recent survey and the issue of loneliness came out again and again.
“The post offices are closed or the Garda station and a lot of the local shops have gone. It is quite a deep story. The position for the elderly today is quite different.
“Attitudinally, in the past, people had more time for other people. If you are isolated or alone, tied to your home, that’s a major problem.”
He had a good career, rising to be the deputy chief executive of B&I Line before becoming a marketing consultant. He hands me a copy of his CV. On line eight – after his degree from Villanova University, his doctor of laws from UCD and his freeman of the city – among other things is his Olympic title.
There are also a slew of honorary positions and directorships.
Being an Olympic champion opened doors, but his ability kept them ajar. He recalls how the Pioneer and Total Abstinence Association hired him though he likes an occasional glass of wine.
“When I told the priest, he said, ‘I’m not hiring you for your drinking abilities.’”