Death of an Irish Olympic champion


ATHLETICS/Bob Tisdall: The 400 metres hurdles champion Bob Tisdall - whose name will be forever associated with Ireland's Olympic success - has died at the age of 97.

He had spent his later years in Brisbane, Australia, but in sporting terms will always be placed at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It was there the 25-year-old won the gold medal for Ireland, narrowly beating the American favourite Glenn Hardin.

His journey to that moment epitomised the Olympic spirit and guaranteed his status as one of Ireland's greatest athletes.

Although he never matched that height, he remains one of only three Irish athletes to win an Olympic gold medal, sharing the honour with Dr Pat O'Callaghan and Ronnie Delany.

He was born Robert Morton Newburgh Tisdall in Sri Lanki on May 16th, 1907, where his parents where then living. His mother, Meta Morton, was from Tipperary, while his father, William Newburgh Tisdall, was from Cork. They soon returned to Tipperary and he spent his early years in Nenagh and Dromineer.

Tisdall first displayed his sporting prowess while studying at Cambridge University, England, winning several different events from the 440 yards flat to the shot putt. But it was only in March of 1932 that he settled on the 400 metres hurdles as his speciality.

He quit his job in London, and wrote to the Olympic Council in Dublin to advise them that he was Irish and would like to compete in the coming Olympics.

With his wife he moved into a converted railway carriage in an orchard in Sussex, where he spent the next three months training, although without any hurdles to practise with.

Trials were then set up for him on a specially laid track in Croke Park and he set an Irish record of 54.2 seconds at his second attempt.

Less than a month later, he was on his way to Los Angeles with the rest of the Irish team.

Weakened by the two-week journey, he stayed in bed for 15 hours a day until the morning of his first-round heat - which he duly won in 54.8 seconds.

Two hours later he won the semi-final in 52.8 seconds, equalling the Olympic record and thus making the gold medal a reality.

So on Monday, August 1st, he lined up in the Olympic final along with the five greatest hurdlers in the world - including the previous two gold medallists. It was only his seventh ever race at the distance and yet he was a class apart, approaching the last hurdle five yards ahead of the field.

"At that moment," he later recalled, "I experienced a strange feeling of loneliness. I began to wonder if the rest of the field had fallen over."

With those thoughts disaster nearly struck. He practically tripped over the last hurdle, and just about recovered to take the gold in 51.7 seconds - the fastest time ever run.

Under the then rules, however, hitting the last hurdle meant the world record couldn't be ratified, and so that went to Hardin in second place, who clocked 51.9.

Within the next hour Tisdall was standing close to the hammer circle to watch Dr O'Callaghan defend his Olympic title with his last throw of 53.92 metres.

What is less recognised about Tisdall is that he was back in the Olympic stadium four days later for the decathlon. He won three disciplines and tried three more for the first time and ended up in eighth place.

He returned to Ireland something of a hero and yet left a year later, initially settling in South Africa.

Following service in the second World War he returned to Ireland, but could never settle, frequently blaming his restlessness on the weather. Eventually, he moved to Nambour just north of Brisbane, where he died peacefully yesterday.

Among those surviving him are his wife Peggy and daughters Sally Ann and Nena. A grandnephew, Peter Hooker, still lives in Dromineer.

In his later years, though, he remained a frequent visitor to his homeland. In 1984 he attended the Los Angeles Olympics, along with Dr O'Callaghan, who died in 1991 at the age of 84.

He also visited the Irish team village at the Sydney Olympics four years ago and earlier that year carried the Olympic torch.