Irish athletes on the highs and lows of Tokyo

Three Irish athletes who were at the Tokyo Olympics 50 years ago this week recall their amazing experiences

October 21st, 1964

He remembers the marathon starting sometime around the middle of the day. It was warm alright, humid and cloudy. But it wasn’t too bad.

He'd no fear of the distance. He'd never run 26.2 miles before, although there was no counting the miles he'd run, since starting out as a youngster in Athlacca, Limerick. He'd nothing to lose, either. He'd dropped out of the 10,000 metres, seven days earlier, although he was more annoyed about that than hurt. So when the field of 68 runners set off from inside Tokyo's National Olympic Stadium, the last event on the last day of competition, Jim Hogan went straight to the front.

After 10 miles of hammering out the road towards Chofu City, the turnaround point, he'd only two men left for company: Ron Clarke and Abebe Bikila. Clarke had finished third in the 10,000m and was still disappointed with that; the big Australian was determined to make amends.

Bikila had won the marathon four years earlier in Rome, providing Ethiopia and all of Africa with its first Olympic gold medal. But he'd had his appendix removed seven weeks before Tokyo and wasn't fancied to last the distance here.


Only Bikila was actually speeding up. He made the turn at Chofu in front, three or four seconds clear of Hogan, who couldn’t spot anyone else behind. So he kept chasing Bikila, through the proverbial wall, approaching 23 miles. All Hogan had to do was to stay on his feet, keep moving forward, and the Olympic silver medal was his.

“Well I didn’t collapse, although I almost did. I just couldn’t put one leg past the other because I was badly dehydrated. I didn’t drink anything the whole race. I’d got a stitch in the 10,000m and didn’t want that to happen again. They’d water and orange juice and all that kind of stuff lined up but I never drank a drop. No one had told me I should.

“I ran with Bikila, right on his shoulder, for as long as possible. We never once looked at each other. Or said a word. Sure he hadn’t a word of English anyway. Around 20 miles he started to pull away from me. Not very much at first. Then he was gone.

"They said there were a million people along the route that day, and it felt like it. They were two or three deep, the whole way. I stopped to walk for a bit, then a couple of other runners came past. Basil Heatley, from England, was one of them, and I'd beaten him before. He ended up second. Then Clarke came past me. He was in a bad state too, but still going, and finished ninth, a good run. We're still good friends and he still rings me from Australia the odd time. Or else I ring him.

"Bikila was unbeatable that day. I ran for the gold medal too, but he was the star of those Olympics. His time of 2:12.11 was a world record by almost two minutes. An unbelievable time. It was five years later when he crashed his car, in Ethiopia, and ended up paralysed. They brought him over to England, to help with his rehab, and he spent a few months down in Stoke Mandeville. I was still living in England then and drove down to visit him once or twice. He remembered me alright, seemed to be in good spirits.

“Things changed for me after Tokyo, too. After stopping in the marathon I sat on the kerb for a good while. No Irish official came near me or asked about me. A couple of the New Zealand runners helped me back to the village. I recovered quickly enough, but by then I was already thinking about running for England. Two years later, when I won the European Championship marathon in Budapest, I was wearing an English vest. In 1968 I also went to the Mexico Olympics, running for England. I’ve no regrets about that. I’ve no regrets about anything.”

Fifty years later, aged 81, Hogan lives in his native Limerick. He no longer runs.

October 19th 1964

She remembers Tokyo as a place of technological wonder, like arriving on another planet. She had already competed in both Melbourne and Rome, but straightaway these Olympics felt different and also destroyed all of her prejudices towards Japan.

She had celebrated her 36th birthday two days into the trip, and even if this made her feel somewhat old by athletics standards, these were the first Olympics where Maeve Kyle could run to her full strength. Because, for the first time, both the women's 400m and 800m were added to the Olympic programme. For years, 200m was the longest distance women were allowed to run, which was partly due to the controversial inclusion of the 800m back in 1928.

Her 400m heats had come first, and although she progressed to the semi-finals, clocking 55.4 seconds, Kyle missed out on the final, this time clocking 55.3. Two days later she also made it through the heats of the 800m, running 2:11.3, which set up another semi-final date, for the following day.

By then, Kyle was feeling a little tired or at least off her peak. It was late in the season when she was selected for Tokyo, and her fourth race, in six days, eventually took its toll. She missed out on the final again but felt a slight tinge of regret the following day, when she saw Marise Chamberlain from New Zealand, an athlete she considered her equal, win the bronze medal.

“But really my only regret was that there was no 400m in Melbourne or Rome. Because that was my favourite event. I just loved the 400m. It required the perfect combination of intelligence and bravery. And I probably didn’t have the pure power for the 100m and 200m, which I ran in Melbourne and Rome.

“It’s still amazing to think that women weren’t considered able to run any further before that, that we were still the weaker sex. We were still kept in separate villages too, the boys and the girls. I was also the only Irish woman on that Olympic team and would get bored just sitting around, so always had to find others things to do.

“I’d actually gone out there expecting to dislike the Japanese people quite intensely, which goes back to my childhood in Kilkenny. Cousins of my grandmother had got caught up in World War II and ended up in Japanese prison camps. She’d actually written to De Valera to help secure their release. So I was not planning on liking Japan. Instead I found them to be the most incredibly fascinating people.

“I’d no idea they were so far ahead of us. There was no doubt they were expressing a newfound confidence and wanted to demonstrate how they’d picked themselves up after World War II, and it was like they were on a different wavelength. That sounds mad. But that’s the way we felt. It was like arriving some place now without ever having seen a smart phone before or a computer tablet or anything like that. That’s what it seemed like to us. And I’d studied science in college so all the Japanese technology and sociology, absolutely fascinated me.

“The Olympics themselves were incredibly well organised. For the first time there was electronic timing, photo finish, printed results, and the first live television broadcasts. Everyone know what they were supposed to be doing and when.

“But the people really fascinated me, how they were working their way back economically. They made every industry like a family unit. There was an enormous difference in the post-war generation.

“They were also very willing to learn and to teach, and in my free time I actually took classes in Japanese flower-arranging, the Japanese tea ceremony and how to wear the Japanese kimono.

“In the end they presented me with the most fabulous pure silk kimono with all the attachments. I still have it hanging in my wardrobe. I always loved to experiment with food, so loved their food as well, the way they prepared their vegetables. They were always cooked to perfection.

"It was an extraordinary opportunity for me, even after competing in Melbourne and Rome. Tokyo really made an enormous impression on me. More than any other Olympics it convinced me to dedicate more time to coaching, and to help afford other young athletes with similar opportunities." Fifty years later, aged 86, Maeve Kyle lives in Ballymena, with her husband Sean. She no longer runs.

October 16th, 1964

He will never forget waking up on the day he was running in the Olympics, especially as it was so early in the morning – too early, he knew, to start thinking about getting up. So he lay there, defying the restlessness, convincing himself it still counted as sleep. Except some doubts had started to creep in, the realisation that the day of the 5,000m heats had dawned, that Thomas Brendan O’Riordan had been drawn in the second of four and there was no time for any more training.

He remembers his heat was scheduled for the late afternoon. That meant killing the best part of a day, although he couldn’t spend a minute too long in the dining hall. Tokyo had been putting on these fantastic big spreads of food every day and, worse, provided small shovels as spoons, leaving every lean distance runner in the village desperate not to eat too much.

He already felt it was a bit late in the season, that maybe he was past his peak or that he might have timed his training differently. He’d also already been waiting around for a couple of weeks, trying to balance the last of the training with resting. He did take part in the opening ceremony to help kill some time, and it was enjoyable, marching in behind the Irish flag and ahead of the Italians, who seemed to be having a real good time.

"We would actually spend most of the day down at the training track. I remember one day spotting Billy Mills, the Native American, running 200m intervals, absolutely flat out. I knew Billy very well. We'd run against each other a lot in college in America, when I was up in Idaho, and he was in Kansas. I definitely beat him one time or twice. You'd also see Ron Clarke or Peter Snell and Murray Halberg, the New Zealanders, and I suppose I was a little bit in awe of them really.

“It certainly felt like a long way from the Tubrid crossroads in Kerry. A couple of days later I was in the National Olympic Stadium to see the 10,000m and just couldn’t believe it when Billy Mills won the gold medal. I don’t think Ron Clarke could believe it either. But Mills had shown a few days before that he had the speed, and that’s exactly what won it for him. He was a great runner, a very good guy, and still does a lot of work for the Native American cause.

“From the four 5,000m heats, only the top three went through to the final. I was very keen to get the race going but then I was always a bit impatient as a runner.

“For the first couple of laps I felt grand. I wanted to give myself my best shot, so I went to the front and held the lead for three or four laps. But that’s not the ideal way to run a heat, and over the last couple of laps I started to drop back. I ended up ninth, running 14:08.0. It was an Irish record, not a bad time on the day.

"Two days later I was back inside the stadium to watch the final, and couldn't believe it again when another American, Bob Schul, won the gold medal. I knew Bob too and had trained with him down in California after college under the great Hungarian coach, Mihály Iglói. Schul was always smart when it came to training, did exactly what Iglói told him to do and no more. He was a smart man when it came to racing too. The other American, Bill Dellinger, one of the qualifiers from my heat, won the bronze.

“It’s funny that I remember everything up to and including my race but very little about after it. That’s the way it is with the Olympics when your race is over, and it wasn’t all that you hoped for.

"You just have to move on, although there will always be some regret or wonder about what might have been had you tried some things a little differently." Fifty years later, aged 77, Tom O'Riordan lives in Dublin with his wife Barbara. He still runs occasionally

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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