The 1906 Olympics were already controversial. Then the world's best longjumper, an Irishman, arrived. Frank Shouldice reports on a forgotten hero
In case you hadn't noticed, the Olympic Games are almost upon us. The build-up to the world's biggest sporting event has been so low key this year that the only anticipation seems to be worries about drugs, security and whether the US government feels it's safe to send a team.
In an ideal world things might be different, but sport does not exist in an apolitical bubble. The Olympics have repeatedly served as a forum for ideological protest, and when the torch is lit in Athens this August it will rekindle a moment in sporting history when an Irish champion used the same arena to make his own political statement.
The Athens games of 1906 were already controversial. The 1900 and 1904 Olympics, in Paris and St Louis, had been slapdash affairs, reflecting poorly on Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee. Greece exploited the discontent to argue that the Olympics should be moved permanently to Athens.
De Coubertin refused, but he did agree, reluctantly, to let Greece hold an interim competition before the London Olympics of 1908. The IOC has always refused to accept the Athens games as legitimate, but they were real enough for the competitors and for the national organisations that brought them to Greece.
In to this turbulent atmosphere came a young Wicklow man named Peter O'Connor, who won a gold and a silver, finishing first in the high jump and second in his favoured event, the long jump. Given the colonial status quo of the day, O'Connor and two other Irish athletes, Con Leahy and Pat Daly, were part of the British Olympic team. All three made it plain that they wanted to represent Ireland - and had raised funds at home to finance themselves - but Crown Prince George of Greece was mindful of his British cousins, so their request fell on deaf ears.
When O'Connor finished second in the long jump - the competition was judged in a highly suspect manner - he was obliged to stand beneath a Union Jack to collect his silver medal. As soon as the ceremony was under way, however - the first time, in fact, that flags had been raised for the winners - he clambered to the top of the flagpole and unfurled a large green flag emblazoned with "Erin go bragh" while his compatriots stood guard below.
O'Connor's defiant gesture made little sense to thousands of Greek spectators, but it was a precursor of the Olympics being tapped as a high-profile stage for political expression. In a sports-obsessed country such as Ireland, it is remarkable that so little is known about O'Connor's sparkling career or, indeed, his momentuous act in Athens. Irish sporting annals are not teeming with world champions, but if history books can commit sins of omission, O'Connor's great-grandson Mark Quinn has set about rectifying matters.
"I always knew about him," says Quinn, referring to the man known variously as the Antelope, the Royal Lepper and the King of Spring. "He was a constant, invisible presence in our family history - invisible because we didn't know much about him, but there were pictures of him in our house and in relatives' houses. It was a story waiting to be told and one I thought deserved to be told. To some degree I felt that I owed it to him to write the book.
"I got drawn in to the story not just because of the family background but [because of\] the shared background we have as Irish people. It was also a great opportunity to delve in to a period of Irish history at the turn of the century, which there's not an awful lot written about."
After perusing one of O'Connor's scrapbooks - he was a meticulous keeper of records - Quinn found himself treading a luminous path, melding the minutiae of an extraordinary period in to the document of a lifetime. "For me it was a tremendous voyage of discovery," says Quinn, who unearthed numerous sources in Ireland, London and Cologne and on the Internet.
"The interesting thing as a researcher was that his story bridged so many eras: the Victorian age, Victorian Ireland, the US at the turn of the century, just when the cult of celebrity was beginning to enter the world of sport. What started as a six-month project lasted three years."
Birth records showed that O'Connor was born in Cumberland in 1872 while his shipwright father worked in a shipyard in the town of Millom, on the fringe of the Lake District. The family soon returned to Ireland, where O'Connor began to develop the athletic prowess that would catapult him to fame.
At a sports gala organised by the Royal Irish Constabulary in Ballsbridge in 1901 he broke the world record with a jump of 24 feet 11¾ inches. His record would stand for two decades and was not bettered by an Irishman until Carlos O'Connell went further, in 1990. O'Connor's tall, lean build suited the demands of the sport, but he had perfected a butterfly technique to extend the jump.
His record prompted invitations to international tournaments, where he aimed to jump 25 feet, a figure as magical to the event as the four-minute mile became on the track. His arrival in the US caused a sensation, with the New York Journal concluding: "Broad jumping is an athletic exercise for which Irishmen are naturally adapted . . . due to a peculiar 'springiness' in the Celt."
Quinn was surprised at how much coverage there had been in the New York papers. "His photograph was splattered across the front pages, which was unusual at the time, and they portrayed him with cartoon images as larger than life, as though having superhuman characteristics."
As holder of the world record he competed at the 1904 world championships, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and emerged victorious. But his achievement was overshadowed when, later that day, an anarchist shot dead William McKinley, the US president, who had been visiting the exposition. For O'Connor's great-grandson it was another key piece in an increasingly remarkable jigsaw.
"I couldn't believe that 100 years ago one of our relatives was only a few hundred yards from where an American president was assassinated - and that this happened hours after he'd won a world championship," says Quinn. "This sort of thing doesn't happen in too many families."
As his research gathered pace it brought the biographer closer to his subject, particularly when drawing from O'Connor's personal correspondence. "He left so many letters that you could really get inside his head. I always felt reading them that he cared so passionately about sport. And it wasn't just him. It's amazing to look at Irish athletes at that time. They were world leaders, especially in jumping and throwing events. There was something about O'Connor and his colleagues, the tremendous hunger these people had not just for proving themselves to the world but to prove themselves to the world as Irishmen. And all of this for the most part without financial gain. There's a certain idealism about it, a desire to do their best or simply to make the best of themselves."
Even a century later O'Connor's paean to discipline reads like a Roy Keane-style guide to achieving perfection. He told a New York journalist: "To do anything great, whether mentally or physically, the act must absorb a man's entire being. An athlete can never do a big performance in a slipshod manner or with his mind preoccupied. He must have his soul riveted on what he is about to do and make the effort with his brain as well as with his muscles."
The remarks struck a chord with Quinn. "That interview opened my eyes," he says. "It epitomises why he became a world champion and Olympic champion. I mean, I've been an amateur chess player and represented Ireland at four Olympiads. I've played on the professional chess circuit a couple of times but always enjoying the game and not having the same level of dedication he would have had."
His great-grandfather's remarks brought the European chess championships to mind when Quinn was twice outplayed by highly rated opponents. "You could sense a huge psychological presence playing them, almost a calmness," he says. "These were people pushing the limits of their potential, and I got the same sensation when I was researching O'Connor's life story. Probably because I lack what it takes to be the best at chess. I haven't got what he had."
Despite huge efforts O'Connor never officially broached 25 feet. His athletics career ended six years after setting the world record, and he concentrated on setting up a law practice in Waterford. Significantly, he attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Jesse Owens won the long jump as well as several golds on the track, putting a serious dent in the Nazi showpiece. O'Connor met Owens after the American's feat, but a photograph of the encounter has eluded every search.
"It will turn up," shrugs Quinn. "It's only a matter of time. If there's one thing doing this book has taught me it's that it's never too late to follow your goals. Peter O'Connor was 29 when he set the world record. I felt very sorry for him to have been forgotten. Not just him but his contemporaries as well. People who made footnotes in this story could have been books in themselves."
Happy to pursue his sporting ambitions on the chessboard, Quinn sees little prospect in his following a family tradition. The last time he tried to emulate his great-grandfather was in the jumping pit at school, where he ended up breaking his arm. He laughs at the memory, but the romance of this biography makes him determined not to let O'Connor's legacy fade away. "It's the Irish Chariots Of Fire story," he says. "This really did happen."
The King Of Spring: The Life And Times Of Peter O'Connor is published by the Liffey Press