Ian O’Riordan: The Olympic arena can be a ruthless and unforgiving place

The dream most athletes travel out with isn’t the same one they bring home

We were chatting among ourselves during the week about what to give our dad for his 84th birthday on Monday. You know what it’s like when they say they want absolutely nothing, and my suggestion of maybe box-framing one of his Olympic medals from Tokyo in 1964 didn’t get much response.

Not the actual Olympic medals, obviously. These are the ones they give out to every athlete after qualifying and then being there for the showdown. In 1964 they got two: a gold competitor medal dressed with a red ribbon that could be pinned on to their Olympic blazer, if they wanted to, and a bronze replica of what the actual medal winners got encased in a small box made of Japanese pinewood.

Truth is he never cared much for these medals or indeed any of his Olympic memorabilia from Tokyo. For years there were lying around at the bottom of a drawer somewhere, although in fairness our mother made sure they were never thrown out.

There’s the story too of the dark green Irish vest he competed in left hanging in the garage passage where he would dry out the rest of his running gear until one day my older brother cleaned his greasy bike with it, and that was the end of that.


Great milestones

It just wasn’t his style: there are shoeboxes full of actual medals lying around the house, most of which haven’t seen the light of day in years, and if there is a picture or two on the wall of him running at his peak then one of us put it up there. Of the times he knew, who could remember better anyway?

Don’t mistake all this for aloofness. Running in Tokyo and representing his country remains one of the great milestones of his life, chasing that Olympic dream in the first place an entirely worthwhile pursuit, leaving him with tales of innocence and purity which still survive 57 years later.

I asked him again recently where Tokyo all began, knowing full well already it wasn’t necessarily at the Tubrid crossroads in north Kerry and the triangular cúilín in front of the family farm where he discovered the joy of running, or during his college years at Idaho State University, where he competed against and often beat the best of them, including one time the University of Kansas standout and Oglala Sioux tribe runner named Billy Mills.

It only began for real in the summer of 1961, when he moved to California to train under Mihály Iglói, the famed Hungarian coach who defected to the US after the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, already turning the likes of Sándor Iharos and László Tábori into world record holders. It was here, too, he first trained with Bob Schul, the American 5,000m runner who also grew up on a small farm in West Milton, Ohio, with whom he also shared many a tale after training in Joe’s Original Diner in San Jose.

By the summer of 1964 Tokyo wasn’t just a target, it was a tangible reality. Knowing the preference for getting the 5,000m qualifying time out of the way early, he lined up a few races in North America in June, and at the St Jean Baptiste Track meeting in Montreal, he clocked 14:07.7, an Irish record by six seconds. This was his dream event, made famous by Nurmi, Zatopek and Kuts, and he was in his running prime; the only worry being Tokyo didn’t start for another four months, on October 10th, designed then to avoid the height of the summer in Japan.

Still few things compare to the joy and excitement and sheer satisfaction of qualifying for the Olympics, especially for the first time, and there have been lots of reminders of this in recent weeks, as the number of Irish qualifiers for the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Games has steadily risen and is now set to number 116 in all, across 19 sports – a long way from the 1964 team of 25, including just one women, across seven sports.

It’s been refreshing, too, to hear their tales of dreams coming true and lifelong aspirations being fulfilled, particularly when set against the unique set of challenges which came with Tokyo this time round. Perhaps the surprising thing is more didn’t fall away and instead stepped up, intent on making Tokyo one of the defining moments of their lives, as it no doubt will feel like.

This brings another reminder too: trace the trail of any Olympic experience and it’s often hard to distinguish between the lasting impact on those who return home with honour and glory or some sense of failure and regret. The dream most athletes travel out with isn’t the same one they bring home, and it would be a lie to say otherwise.

It may be a defining moment of any life, only there is a danger when any life becomes defined by it, and there’s ample evidence of that throughout Irish Olympic history. Ask Kenny Egan or Martin Fagan. Did anyone ask Darren Sutherland? Which is also why it’s recognised one of the most important services at the Institute of Sport is helping athletes deal with the transition back into real life after any Olympic experience, not just preparing them for it.


None of this was discussed after 1964, when athletes had to make up their own mind about success and failure or where exactly they fell in between. This may or may not be easy or straightforward when two days before his heat of the 5,000m, that athlete is inside the Tokyo National Stadium to witness that same Billy Mills become the first and still only American to win the Olympic 10,000m, still one of the greatest upsets in track and field history.

Or two days after his 5,000m heat, which he controlled from the front for several laps knowing only the top three finishers from each of the four heats progressed to the final, only to end up ninth, just a second outside his Irish record, that athlete witnessed that same Bob Schul become the first and still only American to win the Olympic 5,000m. That is no lie.

Truth is too the Olympic arena is more often than not a ruthless and unforgiving place, and qualification often turns out to be just the start of a journey that continues long after the Olympics end. And maybe one of the lasting lessons in all this even 57 years later is that the winning of actual medals or the box-framing of not actual medals shouldn’t prove or be evidence of the defining experience of any athlete. Such is life, such is happiness.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics