Athletics at Croker? Run that by me again

 

ON ATHLETICS: The middle 'A' in GAA has been silent for some time but now they're talking of reviving big-time athletics at Jones's Road. A far-fetched notion . . . or is it?

SOME RUMOURS are so far-fetched you know they can’t be true. Like the rumour Croke Park is to stage a Grand Prix meeting, possibly as early as 2011. Supposedly, they’ve already done a feasibility study on how to lay the running track, and all they’re waiting on is an estimate on costs and IAAF approval before signing up Usain Bolt and the other big stars.

Have they lost their minds? Croke Park has a better chance of staging an Elvis Comeback Tour than a Grand Prix meeting, or indeed a Dublin Graded meeting. Clearly someone has got a bit carried away with these 125 year celebrations of the GAA, and the idea athletics was a founding cause of the association as much as hurling and football. It may still be called the Gaelic Athletic Association, but nostalgia is a dangerous drug, as Marlon Brando used to say, and they’ll soon see just how much athletics has changed since 1884.

Don’t get me wrong – there is a short but wonderful history of athletics in Croke Park, and I’d be the first person in line even for a Danny Lynch Memorial meeting. The problem is there wouldn’t be many others in line, even if they did sign up Bolt. Athletics will always attract great interest in this country, but rarely attracts great crowds, at least not anymore, and they wouldn’t fill a quarter of the 82,300 seats in Croke Park even if the big Jamaican promised to run the 100 metres in less than nine seconds. Would RTÉ even cover it?

It wasn’t always this way. When Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin met up in Hayes Hotel on that rainy November night in 1884 they already held considerable influence on Irish athletics. Davin was regarded as among the world’s best all-round athletes, ever since his shot-hammer double at the Irish Champions Athletic Club meeting at Lansdowne Road in 1875. Later that summer, at the Dublin Amateur Athletic Sports, Cusack also won a weight-throwing double and both soon saw eye to eye, especially on the thorny issue of how Irish athletics should be run.

After staging the inaugural GAA championships at Tramore racecourse on October 6th, 1885, they agreed the event should be moved around the country, and the 1892 championships were awarded to the City Suburban Racecourse on Jones’s Road, better known these days as Croke Park. The event was memorable for the seven gold medals won by Tom Kiely from Ballyneale, and the raucous crowds, which at one point overran the reserved enclosure, resulting in fist fights between “card-sharpers, thimble-riggers and other gamblers of the lowest type”, according to the Freeman’s Journal.

The GAA championships returned to Jones’s Road on several occasions, but by 1903 questions were being raised about the suitability of the venue. The old cinder track was designed for pony and whippet racing and not fancied by the milers, and many potential competitors stayed away, given the bulk of them were based in Munster. Then, 90 years ago, Croke Park staged one of the most historic events in Irish athletics; the first national marathon championship over the now standard 26 miles, 385 yards, in the form of 78 laps of the cycling track that circled the football pitch. Reportedly, over 25,000 spectators stood along the grassy banks to watch the 16 runners put through this mental and physical torture. Less than half of them finished, the winner being hardy Galwayman Tom Hynes in an impressive 2:51.51.

The sudden rise in the popularity of football and hurling and the decline in the popularity of athletics due to emigration shifted the emphasis and the 1913 GAA Congress established a new Athletics Council with the intention of refocusing some attention on the sport. Still interest waned, and prompted by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the GAA Athletics Council and the rival Irish Amateur Athletic Association agreed to merge, forming the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland (NACAI) – and with that prolonging the thorny issue of how Irish athletics should be run.

That wasn’t the end of athletics in Croke Park. In 1924, to celebrate that merger and in the new-found spirit of the Free State, they revived the famous Tailteann Games, apparently first staged near Tara in 1829 BC – long before Greece got their idea for an Olympic Games. Incredibly, some 6,500 competitors took part across several sports, from countries as wide apart as Canada and New Zealand. The athletics in Croke Park proved the highlight, in front of the new Hogan Stand, especially when Kildare footballer and high jumper Larry Stanley fought a terrific duel with the American Harold Osborn, who had just won the Olympic title in Paris.

The 1928 Tailteann Games were even more successful, thanks in part to the appearance of Dr Pat O’Callaghan, just returned from Amsterdam with the Olympic hammer gold medal, but the decision to stage the 1932 Tailteann Games just prior to the Olympics in Los Angeles backfired, as few international athletes made it to Croke Park.

Then came the infamous “split” in Irish athletics, with the NACAI going one way, and the new Irish AAU the other, and with that the Tailteann Games were once again history.

There was one further flirtation with big-time athletics in Croke Park, as part of the effort to end the “split”. Since 1962 they’d been staging a Junior Tailteann Games, and in 1966 a programme of senior events was added and NACAI and AAU athletes competed together for the first time in 30 years. By then it was a purely a Gaelic Games venue and they could only fit a short track, with five laps to the mile. According to The Irish Timesreport of May 31st, “Tom O’Riordan (Donore) provided nearly all the excitement on the closing day of the Tailteann Games, sponsored by the Willwood Athletics Foundation, at Croke Park yesterday when, in his first track appearance since the Olympics Games in Tokyo, he won the mile in a fine time of 4 mins. 12.1 secs.” That, I’m told, remains the fastest mile run in Croke Park.

Anyhow, I was up in Croke Park on Wednesday and decided to put this rumour to bed by confronting stadium director Peter McKenna. “Well the track can be accommodated,” he said, adding he had the drawings to prove it. “Now we’re just costing it out, and seeing what type of events we could go for. But it’s an area we’re very interested in. The city beholds to have a real big athletics event, and if we can pull it off then we’ll try. We’re probably two or three years away from saying whether or not we’re going to act on this. But it’s actively on the agenda, and we want to take it to the point where we can make a real good decision on it.

“Take something like the Tailteann Games. Maybe we could reinvigorate them”

Maybe that’s not so far-fetched after all. As long as they run the mile quicker than 4:12.1.

“The problem is there wouldn’t be many others in line, even if they did sign up Bolt. Athletics will always attract great interest in this country, but it rarely attracts great crowds, at least not anymore