Sad loss of Jerry Kiernan felt far beyond the world of athletics
Olympic marathon runner, commentator and athletics coach dies aged 67
Jerry Kiernan: considered his best achievement to be his coaching role of several Irish champions in more recent years. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Our last conversation was a few weeks before Christmas and sparked, as so often in the past, by me wanting to hear Jerry Kiernan talk about running. In ways now entirely fitting our chat went far beyond running, just as Kiernan’s death at age 67 is sadly lamented by a great number of people far beyond the sport.
Kiernan could be unabashed in considering himself an aficionado in some of the finer things in life – national hunt racing, Barcelona football club, the Super Tuscan red wines – although running was always chief among them. In a world of people shouting to be heard, few spoke about the track or field with such knowledge and authority, or indeed commanded such respect when he did.
Admitting himself he was unwell, his health deteriorating after an illness earlier in summer, Kiernan spoke about the need for athletics to resume some competition, especially as other sports were continuing in the face of a Level 5 lockdown.
“To keep everyone on side it is important to have some competition,” he said. “That’s the emphasis of any elite group. Personally, I would be gung-ho for races too . . . .”
Kiernan followed that with a gentle trademark dig at certain team sports, namely rugby and Gaelic Games, made not out of spite or anger but simply because he felt the need to stand up for athletics, particularly when it came to measuring it on the properly global stage. He was well capable of having a go at athletics too, particularly around the issue of doping or the whimsical transfer of allegiance.
Kiernan could talk the talk like that because he’d run the miles, and as an athletics analyst with RTÉ could read even the most tactical of races like an open book. He could be sharp, witty and unforgiving in his view because he also knew exactly what it took to reach the top.
He will be best remembered for his ninth-place finish in the 1984 Olympic marathon in Los Angeles, and also as a two-time winner of the Dublin marathon, although he always considered his best achievement to be his coaching role of several Irish champions in more recent years.
A native of Listowel in Kerry, Gaelic football somewhat ironically bringing his first taste of success in sport, he lived most of his adult life in south Dublin, where he died on Wednesday night.
Although starting out on the track and cross country, he shifted to the road when marathon running first became popular, winning his first Dublin marathon in 1982, running 2:13.45, which for years after stood as the course record, winning again in 1992.
His ninth-place finish in the 1984 Olympic marathon was inevitably overshadowed by John Treacy’s silver medal-winning run; still Kiernan ran his lifetime marathon best of 2:12.20 in that race, still the eight-fastest man on the Irish all-time list.
A former Irish record holder over 3000 metres on the track and 10 miles on the road, Kiernan also became the 10th Irish athlete to run a sub-four minute mile when he ran 3:59.12 in June of 1976.
A lifelong member of Clonliffe Harriers AC, and a retired teacher at St Brigid’s Boys’ national school in Foxrock, in recent years he coached the likes of Joe Sweeney, Maria McCambridge, Ciara Mageean, John Travers and Kevin Dooney to national titles.
In all Kiernan represented Ireland 17 times between 1975 and 1993, including seven times in World Cross Country, and won five Irish titles from 1,500m to the marathon, plus the National Inter-club and Inter-county cross-country.
President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins was among the many who paid tribute in saying: “News of the death of Jerry Kiernan, Olympian, sports commentator and athletics coach will have been heard with sadness by all those in the sports community and those who enjoyed his voice in commentary.”
Cliona O’Leary, deputy head of TV Sport, RTÉ, also said: “Jerry brought so much passion, honesty, humour and warmth to our coverage across three decades, to everything he did.”
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.