Ronnie Delany regards the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, during which he won a gold medal and set a new Olympic record, as a turning point for athletics. The Melbourne games were the first Olympics to be televised, and Delany says this coincided with many other changes for runners – the rise of sports professionalism, advances in sports science and sports psychology, changes to running equipment and kit, and the rise of performance-enhancing drugs.
The change he reflects on the most, however, is the loss of camaraderie between athletes.
"I don't think the contemporary [athletes] are living their lives with the memories of the friends they had," he says. He still keeps in contact with his co-runners from Melbourne. He lists the names – John Landy, Murray Halberg, Jim Bailey, Albie Thomas, Merv Lincoln, Herb Elliott.
“They’re all my friends all my life, and that may not be there any more … it’s a different relationship, a professional competitiveness.”
What hasn’t changed, he says, is the race. “The foot race is still the same. You get on the starting line, and the first guy that crosses the finishing line is the winner. That has not changed.”
Delany retired from athletics young, going on to work for Aer Lingus, Roadstone, the NTMA and the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. He continued playing tennis until the age of 70, and still swims regularly, aged 84. His training as an athlete, learning how to be acutely aware of his body and how to take care of it, stayed with him for life, he says.
“I gave up tennis because of my hip. That was interesting, because from what I learned about the hip injury, I think I would have been able to avoid it [because] I know my own body so well,”
“Since I’ve gotten the hip done,” he adds, “I now know how to manage the other hip without any significant deterioration.”
But, he says, even Olympic athletes experience ageing in the same way everyone else does.
“The first time, when you’re in your late 60s, when a lady would get up on a Luas and offer you a seat. That was sort of a shock to me,” he laughs. But, he says, such acts are ones of kindness, not of patronisation.
“Society in general is very supportive in that sense … I have so much confidence and faith in the young person of today. Your value system is great and your ability to be more social – you’re not afraid of certain things,”
Several times he refers to his wife, Joan, their four children and 15 grandchildren.
“That aspect of my life has been as fulfilling as my sports life,” he says. Young people today, he says, are more caring and supportive than when he was growing up.
“That’s the big thing that the world is better at – love. My generation grew up in a less tactile society – it wasn’t popular to tell people you loved them. Today people are very tactile, very loving.”