Days of Billy Morton truly in the past

Attendance figures not the be all and end all of modern track and field meets

Will Leer of the USA celebrates last week after winning the Morton Mile in a time of 3:51.82 and breaking the stadium record that stood for 37 years. Photograph: Cathal Noonan

Will Leer of the USA celebrates last week after winning the Morton Mile in a time of 3:51.82 and breaking the stadium record that stood for 37 years. Photograph: Cathal Noonan


Some people in this business might remember a time when Billy Morton could probably have sold out five nights at Croke Park. Of course he was no country singer – just in case there’s any confusion. He was this country’s first and last great athletics promoter, who died in 1969, the Morton Stadium in Santry later named in his honour.

Indeed Morton sold out Santry on more than one occasion, most famously in August 1958, when the Australian Herb Elliott shattered the world mile record with his 3:54.5. It’s reckoned at least 25,000 spectators squeezed into the iron stand and around the concrete terraces that night.

Real hype

Elliott may have beaten our own Ronnie Delany, then Olympic 1,500m champion, but no one left disappointed, not even Delany himself, who quickly realised that crowd “had been privileged to witness the most extraordinary mile in the history of athletics”.

If Morton got his hands on Croke Park he might well have done something similar, because he had a brilliant knack of generating real hype and excitement around an athletics meeting.

Not that Croke Park is a stranger to track and field. The GAA promoted their own athletics championships there, in 1892, in front of such a raucous crowd they overran the reserved enclosure, resulting in fistfights between “card-sharpers, thimble-riggers and other gamblers of the lowest type”, according to the Freeman’s Journal.

Croke Park was close to a sell out when it hosted the revived Tailteann Games, in 1924, and as recently as 1966, staged a senior international where my dad won the mile in 4:12.1 – still the Croke Park stadium record.

Morton was an optician by trade, running a business on Dorset Street, although his preferred business was running. He was the long-serving secretary of Clonliffe Harriers and, by 1958, had just completed a year-long campaign to build a new cinder track on a site he had acquired in Santry. What better way to promote it than stage a world mile record attempt, just four years after Roger Bannister ran his 3:59.4?

The problem was how to attract the world’s best milers. So, Morton took himself to England, and intercepted Elliott and some his Australian team mates, who were travelling around Europe ahead of the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

“We have these lush, green trees all around the track,” Morton told them, “and what they do is they suck in the oxygen all day long, and then in the evening, they release it all again. There is more oxygen around the track in Santry than anywhere else in the world. That’s what makes it so fast. That, and the specially slick cinders.”

Who knows if any of the Australians actually believed him, but like any great promoter, Morton’s enthusiasm had sold them. These days the cinders are long gone, and most of the trees too, although his spirit was still alive in Santry last Friday, at the 2014 Morton Games – also named in his honour.

Among the many highlights in the neatly-packed two-hour programme was the American Chris Lear winning the Morton Mile in 3:51.82 – eclipsing the stadium record of 3:53.80, which since 1980 had stood to fellow American Steve Scott.

“What sort of crowd was there?” my neighbour asked this week – which seems to be the first question most people ask about an athletics meeting these days. It was a good crowd, not a great crowd – but then what exactly constitutes a “great” athletics crowd? Is it a small group of people perfectly in tune with every event, responding with true emotion to the performances – for better or for worse? Or is it a much larger group, only half of which seem interested in the actual events, the other half wondering why there’s no beer or bouncy castle?

This is actually the great debate in athletics right now. Some American track commentators were questioning where exactly the sport is at after the closing day of their national championships in Sacramento last month drew just 9,227 spectators in a 20,000-seater stadium – when in the same city, on the same day, 12,505 packed out the River Cats stadium to watch minor league baseball.

Part of the debate there is that athletics has never been a mainstream spectator sport in America, nor ever will, and that fact should be celebrated: at least it retains its simplicity, tradition, and purity of competition, which is a lot more than can be said for some rising “mainstream” sports such as that cage-fighting lark.

Hard to push

Not that Athletics Ireland aren’t trying hard to push attendances at our own national championships in Santry this weekend. Admission is just €10, children go free, and new title sponsors GloHealth are staging a Mile Challenge fun run tomorrow morning, as well as a providing a family Fitzone to allow spectators test their own speed, jumping and reaction times.

Of course that’s not what a track and field meeting should be all about, and especially not this weekend’s national championships. It should be about watching Mark English over 800m, Paul Robinson over 1,500m, and Thomas Barr over the 400m hurdles, and feeling privileged to witness what could be the next extraordinary Irish athletes in the making.

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