Fintan O’Toole: Why I despise this fake Olympics of phoney winners

Losers of Olympian history are still our heroes – marked out by their courage

Ireland have been part of the tournament since 1924. We look back at the highs and lows for Irish Olympians over the years. Video: Enda O'Dowd

The subtitles on the screen say "Tsubaraya of Japan is second. About four kilometres to go". We cut to a pale, skinny man walking – but why walking? – along the route and waving to the crowd. He's wearing a vest of deep, muted Irish green with the number 32 and surprisingly short white shorts. The Tokyo citizens along the side of the road are applauding him and emitting a low murmur of consolation. His hand goes up to his mouth and then over to the crowd, as if he's actually offering these exotic strangers a kiss.

And then the camera closes in, slowly, tenderly, and with a lovely discretion, as the Irish man crumples. The exhaustion of his body and the emptiness of his spirit suddenly hit his brain. His beautifully straight back collapses into a perfect arc of defeat and his hands drop to his knees. There’s a rushing blur as an unidentifiable runner passes between him and the camera, mocking his immobility.

And then, unbearably, he slumps to the ground and sits on the concrete, his back barely supported by the thin wire fence that is meant to separate observers from participants in the fiercest of all dramas, the Olympic marathon.

His tongue has no strength to speak. He makes a gesture of heartbreaking devastation, lifting his leaden hand to his mouth in a gesture far beyond language in its visceral expressiveness: give me water or I will die. There’s a terrible, terrible shot of his pleading, desperate face, a map of the world in which every landmark marks nothing but utter desolation. A cup of water comes from somewhere off screen and, at this moment, it is not a mere cup of water; it is the whole human history of compassion and succour.


And that’s when I cried for the first time as a Big Boy. Big Boys don’t cry and the cut-off point was the age of seven. I made my Holy Communion that year – 1965 – and that was the rite of passage from little kid (okay to cry) to Big Boy (absolutely not). The church underlined seven as the age of “the use of reason”. The use of reason was incompatible with blubbering, a contemptible affectation of snot-nosed kids and girls. To become a man you passed briskly through the vale of tears and trudged stoically into the righteous uplands of self-control.

Yet here I was, 7½, sitting in the dark of the Corinthian cinema, trying to smother my sobs. My older brother, almost 10, was next to me and next to him was my daddy. I knew they couldn’t see the trickles of salt water wetting my cheeks but what if I let out even a half-stifled sniffle? I’d be found out as not the Big Boy I never actually became. (Perhaps, indeed, it was that moment that saved me from ever being a Big Boy.)


The man I cried for was

Jim Hogan

, though I learned when he died last year that he was born

Jim Cregan

in Croom hospital in


in 1933. I know this is utterly incomprehensible now, but in those days in


you didn’t really watch the Olympics – you waited for the film to come out.

The movie of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics came out, I think, sometime in the autumn of 1965. My daddy took me and my brother to see it on a prairie-wide Kaleidoscope screen in that surreal saturated colour of cinema’s golden age.

Memory is a funny business and I'm not to be trusted on this. I vividly remember the man who won that marathon, the godlike Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, striding through the streets of Tokyo in his bare feet. But when I checked, I found that he ran barefooted in Rome in 1960 but wore shoes in Tokyo. I suppose now that my dad had told me about his run in Rome and that the wonder of that overrode what I actually saw in Kon Ichikawa's magnificent film. I also know now that Ichikawa faked some of the film by getting Bikila to rerun part of the closing stretch the following day. But I will swear that there's nothing fake about Jim Hogan's agony – the tears I shed for him were worth every drop.

Translucent creature

What happened is that the majestic Bikila broke away from the field with miles to go and that only one runner dared to go with him. It was Jim Hogan, the skinny, pale, translucent creature in the deep green Irish vest, a poor Limerick man who had been forced to emigrate to


to make a living. Hogan alone went with Bikila and the two of them kept going until they opened up a vast gap on the rest of the field. And all Hogan had to do then was to slow down and settle for silver. But he kept chasing the great African because that was the honest thing to do. At 23 miles he was half-dead, slumped on the ground, hoping strangers would understand the universal gesture for “water, please”. He was a pathetic loser – and my hero, then and now.

And that’s why I despise this fake Olympics of phoney winners.