Chronicles of the once upon a time athletics reporter

Starting out in this old game it was always about getting the quotes

I’ve been here before. Today and tomorrow and yesterday too. The morning start list and the last shuttle bus and in between the somehow always long walk down to the mixed zone and then getting the quotes. It was always about getting the quotes.

I’ve been here before. Maybe not because the first and last time I was in Munich was 20 years ago this same week to report on a European Athletics Championships which back then was a magnificent stand-alone event staged inside this same tented arena that is the 1972 Olympic Stadium. It will be stand-alone again after this one.

It was always about getting the quotes. Sonia O’Sullivan was the defending champion in the 5,000m and the 10,000m, the two titles she won in Budapest four years previously when some people were starting to wonder was she already past her prime on the track. Far from it. She also won two World Cross-Country titles earlier that same year, didn’t she?

In Munich 20 years ago this same week she won the silver medal in the 10,000m behind Paula Radcliffe, who ran from the front and finished one second outside of 30 minutes. O’Sullivan won another silver medal in the 5,000m, this time losing by .09 of a second to the Spanish woman Marta Dominguez, who some of us always had our doubts about given her ridiculous knack of peaking at exactly the right time.


A few short years later Dominguez was done for doping, only that gold medal was never sent back. O’Sullivan knew that too and she always obliged because back then it was always about getting the quotes.

Malachy Logan, sports editor of The Irish Times, had put me on a retainer to report on this and oddly other sports

I’ve been here before. Three years before Munich. It was the 1999 World Athletics Championships in Seville, staged inside an unbearably hot concrete stadium down by the river, a year after Malachy Logan, sports editor of The Irish Times, had put me on a retainer to report on this and oddly other sports. It was always about getting the quotes.

There were three people at those championships in Seville who showed me the way and my dad was one of them. So was Peter Byrne and Brendan Mooney. These were once upon a time a different breed of journalist and I say that not because they are gone now within four months of each other. I say that simply because it is true. They were reporters and they were correspondents and it was always about getting the quotes.

Byrne had a brilliant grasp of athletics even though I do not know if he ever ran a race in his life. Mooney I know did, a champion 400m runner in his prime, and in the late evening when every last word was filed we sat around a table outside their hotel and talked until it was late into the Seville night and they were good to me.

For Mooney, the replenishment of choice was always red wine by the glass and never the bottle and when they told him that yes they had the finest rioja he raised that unforgettable smile. We drank any lager by the glass or bottle as long as it was cold and trust me nobody breathed it in more easily than my dad.

In Seville, they were staying in a hotel with an all-marble lobby and I was staying in a converted monastery which had an outdoor swimming pool. We talked about the athletes they knew such as Sonia O’Sullivan because that first name is what they always called her, and John and Eamonn and Catherina too, and they knew them so well because it was always about getting the quotes.

Occasionally on that trip and others afterwards Mooney would surprise me in particular with quotes from the mother or the father of the athletes he knew and he would imitate stories too about Seán Kelly the cyclist and just how good he was and even though we’d heard those stories before we still laughed out loud because they were funny.

Byrne, Mooney and my dad were reporters and travellers and terrible tourists. They travelled around the world and back again and never once went sightseeing. It was always about getting the quotes.

Fellow Irish Times journalist Johnny Watterson told me a story recently about the time he was reporting on athletics for the Sunday Tribune and they were in Oslo or maybe Helsinki to watch O’Sullivan run a 3,000m and at some point in the race my dad pointed at his stopwatch and told those around him that she’d just run 62 seconds for that lap. They wrote that down. He was the Olympic runner and he never once spoke about that.

I’ve been here before. In Berlin and not Munich when at the 2009 World Athletics Championships for the last trip shared when it was just with Mooney and Tom, who I called Liam. There was the first morning when the three of us walked unexpectedly moved by the sense of scale and design and history inside the old Olympic Stadium.

I told them that if the ghost of Adolf Hitler doesn’t get them first then the ghost of Jesse Owens will.

“You know I met him once,” said my dad, as we walked around the stadium’s colonnade.

“Who’s that?” I jested. “Hitler, or Jesse Owens?”

“Jesse Owens,” he replied.

“I was running down at the Drake Relays meeting. In Des Moines, Iowa. It must have been 1960. It was 1960. My old coach Dubby Holt had run with Jesse Owens in college and knew him extremely well. Owens was at that meeting and I got to shake his hand. Got my picture taken with him and all.”

I remember we walked on past the pillar of the Marathon Gate, where the names of all the gold medallists at the 1936 Olympics are engraved

“What did you say to him?” I asked.

“Nothing. I was just in total awe of him. I just shook his hand, and then ran away. I was so inspired I went out and ran a school record in the two-mile.”

I remember we walked on past the pillar of the Marathon Gate, where the names of all the gold medallists at the 1936 Olympics are engraved. There was that name again, written as Lauf Owens as if engraved only yesterday.

We stood there in silence, momentarily overcome by the history of it all.

“You know he eventually died of lung cancer?” I said, breaking the silence.

“Who did?” asked my dad. “Hitler, or Jesse Owens?” — and I don’t think he was jesting.

“Jesse Owens.”

“Did he? I never knew that.”

I’ve been here before, thinking about that Berlin trip here in Munich, thinking about Byrne and Mooney too, when it was always about getting the quotes and lonesome now after the years that turn to minutes and the minutes to memories.