For many, like Basil Clifford, the Olympics prove a once-in-a-lifetime highlight

IOC will have to tread on athletes’ cherished dreams if Tokyo 2020 is postponed

Basil Clifford: Although he didn’t make it out of his 1,500m heat, Clifford was rightly welcomed back to Donore as a hero and inspiration following his appearance at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

Basil Clifford: Although he didn’t make it out of his 1,500m heat, Clifford was rightly welcomed back to Donore as a hero and inspiration following his appearance at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

 

We picked up the messages first and then did a quick swing by O’Briens. When you’ve two elderly parents still living nearby, and they’re both under their own gently self-imposed house arrest, this is just another small part of the now necessarily normal.

Prevention, as any nurse and mother will tell you, is better than cure. And now more than ever is that priority ringing true. So everything was left inside the veranda and we rang up later in the day to make sure they got them okay.

Mam said: “You forget the toilet rolls.”

Dad said: “The Tokyo Olympics are looking dodgy.”

Some priorities never change. These may be strange and worrying times but it’s perfectly understandable, in our family anyway, why the Tokyo Olympics might be playing on his mind. And not just because he ran there when the Olympics were last staged in Japan in 1964.

In some small way we were brought up on his memories of Tokyo, the lasting bonds and friendships he made out there and also some of the lasting wonder and regret that is somehow still there 56 years later. Trust me.

In many ways everything about sport and especially the 2020 Olympics is being lost in the face of what’s happening in the world right now, and in other ways it’s being found again too.

Ireland sent a team of 25 to those 1964 Olympics, just seven athletes in the track and field events, many of those old bonds and friendships now sadly lost forever – beginning just nine years after Tokyo with Basil Clifford. His story is a reminder now too of how the Olympics aren’t just a typically once-in-a-lifetime experience, but can last and in ways define that lifetime too.

They knew each other well before then, beginning in June 1957, to be exact, when they first raced each other at the old N.A.C.A All-Ireland Youths Mile at the Athletic Grounds in Dundalk: Clifford, running for Inchicore Harriers, finishing second to his fellow teenager from Kerins O’Rahilly AC in Tralee, who won in 4:31.0.

By 1964 they were both running with Donore Harriers, frequently training together from the small club house in Hospital Lane, Islandbridge. Two years before Tokyo they’d also travelled to the US for some indoor relay races and training which Ronnie Delany had helped line up, along with Noel Carroll and Derek McCleane, who also went on to run in Tokyo.

Clifford was always more of a 1,500m man. Like every true amateur runner of the day he also worked full-time, for the Tony Farrell Bakery in Blackrock, and would supplement his daily training by running up the steps of the shop with bags of flower on his back. His speed and long lanky stride was his strength, although late into the summer of 1964 he was still looking to seal his Olympic qualifying time.

So his Donore club mate, already certain of his Olympic place in the 5,000m, passed on his invitation to Clifford to run in the Emsley Carr Mile at the old White City in London. Regrets? Among the few to mention perhaps.

Because before a crowd of over 30,000, on the August Bank Holiday Monday, Clifford finished third in 3:59.8, behind Poland’s European Championship silver medallist Stanislaw Baran, who won in 3:56.0.

Stolen wallet

With that Clifford became the almost inevitably forgotten second Irish man in history to run that sub-four minute, eight years after Delany had become the first with his 3:59.1, clocked when winning the mile at Compton College in California in June 1956, a few months before he went on to win his Olympic gold medal in Melbourne.

When the Irish Olympic team headed for Tokyo in October 1964 Clifford was the sort of baby among them: they all loved and looked out for him, in part because of his boyish looks and also naturally nervous and worrisome disposition.

This wasn’t helped when he was pickpocketed while window shopping in Tokyo, the thief not realising who he’d messed with, Clifford quickly giving chase and recovering his stolen wallet.

Although he didn’t make it out of his 1,500m heat, Clifford was welcomed back to Donore as a hero and inspiration, to young and old, as he well he might. He was named Athlete of the Year at the Caltex Awards later that year, our original sporting honours list, and two years later moved to Birmingham with his wife Deirdre, seeking better employment. He joined Birchfield Harriers in the hope that better competition might improve his chances for the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

Only for a variety of reasons, including the birth of their first two children Karen and Gavin, Clifford drifted off the running scene, with few recorded races after 1966.

The Irish team of 25 athletes, including friends Basil Clifford and Tom O’Riordan, march behind the national flag at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
The Irish team of 25 athletes, including friends Basil Clifford and Tom O’Riordan, march behind the national flag at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

Just nine years after his Tokyo experience, on the morning of Wednesday November 14th 1973, Clifford was killed along with five others after an explosion and fire ripped through the Imperial Metal Industries plant in Whitton, outside Birmingham, where he worked.

The plant also manufactured guns for the hunting and sports trade, a fire starting in one of the machines used to fill the cartridges with gunpowder. It was a freak and tragic death in every sense.

In 2014, on the 50th anniversary of his sub-four mile, Donore Harriers inaugurated the Basil Clifford trophy, which is now awarded annually to the Irish senior 1,500m champion.

In December, in anticipation of celebrating his Tokyo participation alongside the 2020 Olympics, the club produced a short biography by Cyril Smyth, also listing in fascinating detail his nearly 300 races over an 11-year span from 1955 to 1966.

The launch was attended by family members, now including grandchildren Luke, Lauren, Adam and Chloe, all of whom were rightly moved by the esteem and respect his Olympic status still holds within the club.

Now, 56 years later, his story may also offer some small reminder to the International Olympic Committee when it comes to deciding what to do with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, in the face of ever-changing priorities.

Prevention, as any nurse and mother will tell you, is better than cure, Clifford’s story is also a small but not forgotten example that, for many, the Olympics are a typically once-in-a-lifetime experience. That should be allowed to last and perhaps define that lifetime too.

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