Unexpected tales of the Irish leaving their mark on Munich

Tracing the trial from the first modern Olympic champion, to champion Irish athletes of the future

For five mornings straight already the U3 from Marienplatz has been spilling us out from Olympiazentrum station to where the walk up to the stadium begins. Before things cooled noticeably down on Friday, this is not a walk that invites any detour except when the history which is so near comes calling.

Olympiazentrum is on the eastern side of the vast Munich Olympiapark, purpose-built for the 1972 summer Games and in concrete and grassy structural appearance essentially unchanged in the 50 years since. On this same side is the Olympic Village, converted now into student residences although still exactly signposted and street marked as in 1972.

There is the entrance map that points to the four different apartment blocks, which in 1972 housed the 7,173 athletes from 121 nations. One of the blocks is divided by a street named Connollystraβe, the Irish marking here coming unexpected to me.

A short walk down Connollystraβe, there is a memorial sign outside Block 31, where 11 days into those Games, as most of the athletes slept, eight tracksuit-clad members of the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization broke into the Israeli team quarters. Two Israelis were shot dead in their efforts to keep the intruders out, another nine team members were taken hostage.


Less than 24 hours later all nine Israelis were dead, along with five of the terrorists and one German police officer, killed in a botched rescue attempt known as the Munich Olympic massacre, which will haunt those Games forever. It all started on Connollystraβe street, marked in 1971 the year before the Games began.

So who was Connolly? Unexpected to me the street was named after James Connolly, not of 1916 Rising heroics, rather the James Brendan Connolly, who in Athens in 1896 became the first modern Olympic champion – closing the gap on the last champion of the ancient Olympics, the Armenian boxer Prince Varasdates, in 396 AD.

Connolly won the triple jump – then known as the hop, skip and jump – on the afternoon of April 6th, representing America, the first final of the Games, but that’s only a small part of his remarkably unexpected life: he later became the foremost American authority on salt-water sailing, publishing 25 novels and 200 short stories and winning a Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting, including some dispatches from the Irish Civil War.

His love of maritime writing is entirely suitable, given it is said Connolly was conceived on a steamboat to America in 1868 after his parents left their poor fishing livelihood on Inis Mór in the Aran Islands to seek out better things. They settled in south Boston, where Connolly was born and later sought out better things of his own.

Unhappy with his lack of career path, he took to self-education and in 1895 sat an entrance exam at Harvard University and was accepted to study the classics. In his freshman year at Harvard, aged 27, he read about the revival of the modern Games in Athens and as American triple jump champion already was determined to be there.

What happened next is captured in his later autobiography, Sea-borne – Thirty Years Avoyaging, an example too of Connolly’s mastery with the pen: “I went to see the chairman of the athletic committee about a leave of absence. One peek at the chairman’s puss told me that here was no friendly soul. I piped down on any talk of violet-wreathed Athens, of marbled Athens, or the bard Homer chanting his sonorous periods before the customers of the market-place inn. I put in a bold request for eight weeks’ leave of absence to compete in the Olympic Games at Athens.”

Harvard presented him with one option: drop out and reapply for admission after he got back. Connolly told them not to bother about the reapplying part, because he was dropping out anyway, his date with destiny in Athens already decided.

In getting there he spent 16 days travelling 6,000 miles as part of the American team of 10 athletes and one official and got his wallet robbed sometime after they landed in Naples. They reached Athens on the evening of April 5th, believing they had 12 days before their competition, without realising on the Greek Orthodox calendar they were in competition the next day.

Unfazed by the challenge or any pressure, Connolly duly won with a best jump of 13.71 metres, a metre clear of second – using his own style of the hop, another hop and jump – and he later finished second in the triple jump and third in the long jump. He attended several more Games as athletics reporter, including London in 1908 after which he wrote about some of the judging controversies in The English as Poor Loser.

Connolly never forgot his Irish heritage, and on his return visit in 1921 filed reports to several American newspapers detailing the state of affairs during the war. Like many writers of his time and still today, he slipped into poverty and obscurity and died in New York aged 88, still leaving forever his unexpected mark on modern Olympic history and on Connollystraβe here in Munich too.

All such wondrous sporting and life journeys begin by leaving a mark somewhere and it’s here in Munich that Israel Olatunde and Rhasidat Adeleke can feel they have done so too.

There can only ever be one first time, and on Tuesday night inside the same old Olympic Stadium as used in 1972, Olatunde first announced himself as the fastest Irishman in history, still only 20 and the first Irishman to make the 100 metres final at these European Championship, and then breaking the national record to finish sixth in 10.17 seconds.

Then on Wednesday night, Adeleke did something similar, still only 19, also going where no Irishwoman had gone before when finishing fifth in her 400m final, lowering her own national record to 50.53 seconds.

Adeleke wasn’t finished yet and arguably ran better again here on Friday morning, her 49.49-second split – in her now 50th race of the season – helping bring her team-mates Sophie Becker, Phil Healy and Sharlene Mawdsley into the final of the women’s 4x400m relay. After improving the national record by a second and a half to 3:26.06 they are in with a real shout of medal now, and before Friday that was unexpected too.

Unfazed by the challenge or any pressure, what Olatunde and Adeleke achieved in Munich this week has been about laying down a mark as much as leaving one, the journey ahead sure to have some unexpected detours along the way, their experience sure to stand to both when the next chapter in history comes calling.