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‘If he had his pipe in his mouth, I was playing well’: Victor Costello on his father’s influence in his success

Paddy Costello was a shot putter, an international rugby player and an inspiration to his son, to whom he conveyed tips through his deeds, notes and pipe

Victor Costello, the former rugby player and Olympic shot putter, at home in Killiney, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

This story is part of a series, The Greatest Irish Olympic Stories Never Told, which will run every Saturday in The Irish Times up to the beginning of the 2024 Olympic Games, on Friday, July 26th

The story begins, as so many of these stories do, with a young boy who wanted to impress his father. Paddy Costello was a shot putter. Victor knew it for as long as he knew his own name. His father threw the shot and he played secondrow for Leinster and also for Ireland, one of those one-cap wonders whose career began and ended on a cold afternoon in Paris, long before colour television became a thing.

Not that he ever spoke about it. Paddy wasn’t one for disinterring the past and he was unsentimental in ways that still make Victor laugh. One day, he was helping the old man to wash the car, and he noticed that he was using an old Springboks jersey as a chamois leather. It was a memento from a match he played for Leinster against South Africa in the late 1950s and there he was, wringing it out in a bucket of sudsy water.

“His mantra,” Victor remembers, “was, ‘It’s all for the glory of the moment – because it doesn’t last’.”


Everything that Paddy did, Victor wanted to do – except he wanted to do it better. Which is why his second Ireland cap meant more to him than any of the other 38 he won, because it meant that he’d eclipsed his father’s achievement. You don’t name your son Victor and expect him to settle for second best at anything.

He had beat his father’s shot put record years earlier, although it’s difficult to put an exact date on it because Victor suspects that certain information was kept from him. Paddy promised the boy 20 quid when he could heave that metal sphere further than he did. But Paddy’s best ever throw was recorded in the old metric of yards while Victor was dealing in the new money of metres. When they sat down together at the kitchen table to do the maths, Victor suspects that the occasional inch or two was somehow “lost” in the conversion.

What is absolutely certain is that, by the age of 16, he could throw the shot further than any man, woman or child in Ireland. He won the first of six successive national senior titles when he was barely out of transition year. Nature had accorded him certain advantages in height and strength. Paddy, a pipe-smoking carpet salesman, could see that the boy had serious talent, even Olympic potential. He ordered some cement and built a throwing circle in the garden of the family home in Glencullen, south Dublin.

“I can still see him,” Victor remembers, “banging on the window, trying to get me outside – God love him – while I was sitting there playing my guitar. I’d do the teenager thing, rolling my eyes – ‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ – then finally go out and do my warm-up.”

Paddy Costello, father of Victor. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The problem for Victor was that it came so easily to him.

“There was a time when I was unbeatable in Ireland. And I’m not saying that to sound big-headed or to disrespect the sport. My friend Gary Lavin would drop me off at Santry for the schools championships, the two of us having been out the night before. I’d just show up, win the thing, then go home to bed for a few hours and be back out that night.”

His father would write notes and leave them on his pillow to read when he got home in the early hours, a practice that continued into Victor’s rugby career.

“They would say things like, ‘You did well, but work on this,” or, ‘Work on that’.”

Paddy hailed from a family of big men, many of them guards, from a village in Connemara that happened to be named Costello. He understood the danger of his son getting a big head. But then how could he not? He was the star of the Blackrock College rugby team. He won two Leinster Schools Senior Cups and scored 10 tries in a single campaign, a record that – like his Irish schools shot put record – still stands 3½ decades on.

Victor Costello in action for Blackrock against St Mary's in 1996. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Paddy couldn’t but be proud of the boy. He lived and he breathed rugby. He met Marie, his wife, at a dance in Bective Rugby Club. But Victor wasn’t the only sporting star in the house. His sister, Suzanne, was an elite 100m runner and later played hockey for Ireland at university level. At weekends, the four of them packed themselves into the car, bound for Tullamore, Cork, Armagh or wherever they were due to compete.

Victor Costello, member of Bective Rangers 1955 Leinster Senior Cup-winning team. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Long before his Leaving Certificate, Victor was being courted by the top Ivy League colleges – Harvard, Yale, Brown. He turned them all down because by then he’d realised that throwing the shot was something he just happened to be good at, while rugby was something he loved.

But it was still an amateur sport. There was no Leinster academy, no career track to take players from schools to senior rugby. “The idea was that you joined a club and played with their thirds,” he remembers, “then you played Leinster under-20s, then maybe Ireland under-21s. So there was this period between the ages of 19 and 21, where you were learning your rugby but you were also free to try your hand at something else.”

Victor Costello playing for Ireland in 1998. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

That was when he and Paddy started to talk about the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. “My father wasn’t really an emotional man,” he says, “so he would never have told me if going to the Olympics was a dream of his, although I suspect it was. So I was sort of doing it for him as well as me. I was throwing 17, 18 metres consistently throughout 1990 and 1991. The Olympic qualifying distance was 19.30m, so I wasn’t far off it. And because I wasn’t playing much rugby, I had the time to work at it.”

He spent the whole of 1991 “getting fat, eating steak and throwing the shot”. He kept turning up at meets and winning them as a matter of metronomic routine while trying to hit the jackpot distance. Paddy watched from just outside his line of vision, offering his thoughts, if they were wanted, through their own secret language.

“I always knew where to find him whenever I was competing. When I played rugby in Donnybrook, it was in the corner of the terrace at the Dodder end, with his brother. If he had his pipe in his mouth, I was playing well. If the pipe was in his hand, I wasn’t. With the shot, if he did this clapping motion with his hands, I was going too fast. We had another sign if he thought my trajectory was off.”

He finally threw the Olympic qualifying distance at a meet in Tullamore. “I remember driving home on a back road through Monasterevin and there was a humpback bridge over a steam. I celebrated by absolutely gunning the Ford Granada over it with my father in the front passenger seat beside me.”

But the Olympics turned out to be more about being there than being competitive. He admits that he felt like a day-tripper around the other track and field athletes for whom this was a full-time job as well as a lifetime dream.

“I know if Terry McHugh was sitting there now,” he says, “he’d say I could have been more committed. Terry was a fantastic javelin thrower and a workaholic when it came to his sport. But I knew if I built up the kind of muscle that I needed to do well in the Olympics, it would have held me back in rugby.

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“Also, whenever I competed for Ireland, I knew that the best I could hope for was fourth or fifth. And then you’d hear afterwards that your man who won was done for drugs in the past.”

All three shot-putters who finished on the podium in Barcelona had previously served doping bans, although Jim Doehring, who won silver, had been reinstated due to “irregularities” in the testing procedure in time for the Olympics.

Victor hoped that a repeat of his throw in Tullamore might see him squeeze into the final. He remembers walking across the track towards the infield, hearing the roar from the crowd and thinking, ‘I’ve never heard a response like this before,’ before realising that it was for Linford Christie and Ben Johnson, warming up for the heats of the 100m.

“I could feel, I don’t know, nervousness is the wrong word, but it was a weakness in my joints that came from the realisation that I was at the Olympics.”

His first effort – “the settler” – was a disappointing 15.99 metres. His second was a less-than-earth-shattering 17.15 metres. His third and final throw was a foul and he finished 22nd out of 26.

“When it’s not going well, that circle is a lonely place – lonelier than losing at Twickenham. I hate saying this, but the easy road is to not perform, to say, ‘Hard luck, Victor, go home.’ I’m not saying I deliberately folded, but something went wrong and I didn’t have the tools to correct it.”

He feels he acquired them during the course of his subsequent careers, first as a rugby player, then as an airline pilot for Ryanair, and more recently as an entrepreneur, operating a flight school out of Florida, as well as a storage hangar business for private jets.

“You put 53-year-old Victor Costello back in that circle and I’d know what to do,” he says. “Because I’ve felt that way many times since. On the rugby pitch. In business meetings. In turbulence at 38,000ft, where I couldn’t afford to fold. I had to find solutions.”

When the Olympic team arrived back in Dublin, Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough, Ireland’s two boxing medallists, left the aircraft through the front door. Victor remembers slipping out the back, along with Gary O’Toole, feeling embarrassed. “Sometimes I think I talk down my Olympic experience as a protection to myself, because I know I could have done better. But I know I was privileged to go.”

He went on to enjoy a second, far more celebrated, sporting life as a rugby player. Paddy was there to watch his son take his first faltering steps in the All-Ireland League – pipe in mouth or hand. “If I was having a bad game,” Victor laughs, “I learned not to look!”

Victor Costello, son of Paddy. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Paddy was there to see him make his debut for Leinster in the autumn of 1995. He was there in 1996 to see him win his first Ireland cap – not to mention his family record-smashing second. And he was there in Donnybrook in October 1997, when Victor played a stormer in a Heineken Cup victory over Milan. That night, while Victor celebrated with his team-mates in Kielys, Paddy left what would be his final note on his son’s pillow.

“I still have it,” Victor says. “It just said, ‘Nothing more I can do’.”

It was eerily prophetic, because the following day, Paddy suffered a fatal heart attack while driving to Leitrim.

“I had a phone call from this cop,” Victor remembers, “who said, ‘I’m just checking your address because there’s a car on the way to you.’ I said, ‘I’m asking you, man to man, is it my dad?’ He said, ‘Yeah, there’s been a problem.’ I said, ‘Is he alive or dead?’ And he told me. I think I grew up about 10 years in that moment, getting off the phone, with my mother and my sister looking at me, then having to tell them. We’re not four legs of a chair any more – we’re three.”

Twenty-seven years later, Paddy Costello lives on in the lessons he taught his son. Victor has children of his own now, including a boy of seven, who doesn’t play rugby or throw the shot like his father and grandfather. “He plays soccer,” says Victor. “And he’s very good. But when he’s going off to these blitzes, I’m saying to him, ‘Look, you don’t have to be Ronaldo tomorrow. Just take it slowly – and enjoy the moment.’”

And sometimes it pulls Victor up short. Because even though it’s his own voice he can hear, he knows that it’s Paddy talking.