In an extract from his forthcoming book, Peter Byrne recalls a brilliant night in Santry 60 years ago this August when five men, including Ronnie Delany, broke the four-minute mile barrier.
Billy Morton had a way with words. Enthusiastic and effusive in full spate, he could still capture the attention of his audience like few others on those occasions when he needed to be quick and straight to the point after we, in the sporting press, were required to attend briefings at the back of his optician’s shop on Berkeley road on Dublin’s north side.
And so it was, that we made our way in the general direction of the Mater Hospital – he always used that landmark in much the same way as the traffic control office might guide the emergency services to a specific location – after being summoned in the cause of duty in the spring of 1958.
“Gentleman,” he began, “grass is on the way out” before going on to wax lyrical on the modern shale track being planned for the pristine stadium he was building as the new home of Clonliffe Harriers in particular and Irish athletics in general.
Ever since Croke Park closed its gates to athletics for the last time after the NACA championships in 1933 – the 100 yards championship staged there six years later, being a one-off concession – the sport had no suitable stadium in Dublin.
True, Lansdowne Road and College Park had been used on occasions for the big invitational meetings held under the auspices of the AAU, which by now couldn’t wait to shed the Eire part of its appellation, but in each instance, athletes had to make do with running on grass. That was, at best, an embarrassing anachronism at a time when the western world generally, was moving towards artificial surfaces and it encouraged Morton to tilt against financial logic and literally risk house and home, by committing himself to the construction of Santry Stadium, later renamed in his honour.
After several false starts, Irish athletics was at last to have a purpose built arena in north Dublin and as befitted a man who was invariably thinking outside the box, Billy Morton was already laying his plans for the lavish international meeting which would introduce his stadium to the world.
The British Empire Games were due to be staged at Cardiff in July 1958 and it was the intention of the maestro to piggy back on that promotion, to boost the appeal of a two-day meeting in the first week of August.
Runners like Murray Halberg of New Zealand had never previously set foot in Ireland but his media profile was such that people here were able to identify readily with a man who overcame a physical disability to become one of the best middle distance runners in the world. And yet, undeniably, it was the exceptionally talented Australian squad of the time, which gave real gravitas to the Santry programme.
John Landy was now in retirement but the legacy of the great man was such that his record of achievement would inspire a whole new generation of gifted middle distance runners down under. Men like Mervyn Lincoln and Albie Thomas were unbeatable in the mood but the ace in the pack was a young athlete from Melbourne who was already being hailed as an even more prodigious talent that Landy.
Herb Elliot was just 20 at the time, a slim, unassuming man who had only recently graduated from St Aquinas CBC where it was said, his athletic prowess was excelled only by his academic ability.
Now he was channelling all his endeavours into sport and the end package, as illustrated in Cardiff where he completed the 800 and 1500 metres double, was quite magnificent. If any runner was capable of beating Ronnie Delany in his home town, the experts reasoned, it was the youngest and potentially, the greatest miler in the Southern Hemisphere.
Thomas, only marginally older than Elliott, was the first of the Australians to experience the special atmosphere of Santry Stadium, set in a unique sylvan setting, on big race nights.
He competed there in one of Clonliffe’s earlier promotions and was suitably euphoric after setting a new world record of 13 mins 10.8 secs for three miles.
To underline the point, his compatriot, Hector Hogan equalled the world 100 yards record of 10.6 secs at the same meeting and some of the visiting officials could scarcely believe the evidence of their own eyes at the achievement. That was the best endorsement any new track could have received but Morton still had a trump card to play.
Accepting the Australians’ congratulations on producing a track as fast as that, the little man reminded them that it wasn’t all down to the running surface. The huge oak tress surrounding the stadium had a lot to do with it, he said and then, to the growing astonishment of the visitors, he went on to explain that during daylight hours, the trees absorbed oxygen before releasing it back into the atmosphere when the temperature began to drop in the evening. And this, he explained to Thomas, was the reason why he had been able to produce such a brilliant performance the day before.
Thomas couldn’t wait to rejoin the main Australian party to give them the exciting news. Never mind the chemical rationale expounded by Morton; there was an x-factor about this track in Dublin which put it apart from all others and the Australians should take full advantage before returning home.
One of the by-products was that Elliott, seeking to obliterate Derek Ibbotson’s world mile record of 3mins 57.2 secs which was still awaiting ratification by the IAAF, declared himself available for the race which by now, Billy Morton was marketing as the Miracle Mile.
It helped, of course, that in Ronnie Delany, Ireland boasted the reigning Olympic 1500 metres champion. Elliott might be the real deal in the making but in the eyes of the masses converging on Santry Stadium that evening, nobody was going to upstage Delany once decided to deliver his trademark “kick” at some point on the last lap.
It was simply the most significant race ever run in Ireland, despite the intrusion of a black and white mongrel dog midway through the race, and it lived up to its billing to the letter.
A piece of “colour” journalism written soon afterwards, captured an essential part of the drama. Setting the scene, the writer observed – “The night before the race, Elliott had whiled away the passing hours at a hotel up in Botanic Road by consuming a fair quantity of a certain black Irish beverage. It wasn’t showing now but those of us accustomed to the old regime of sporting discipline, wondered at the icy nerve of the man.
“Murray Halberg of new Zealand was never among the great stylists of track and field but in situations in which courage was paramount, his ability had been demonstrated time and again in stadia around the world.
“Delany, taut, tense and yet sufficiently relaxed to acknowledge the thunderous cheer which greeted the announcement of his name on the starter’s roll call, led the Irish challenge but there too were Jim McLoughlin, winner of four national titles at the distance, Dan Carberry and Tony O’Donoghue, later a highly respected commentator on the sport.
“And then they were off. Thomas jumped into the role of pacemaker from the first bend and in that instant, it became clear that the Australians were chasing records. Delany, as we anticipated, stayed at the back but up front it was all Australia, as Thomas took Lincoln and Elliott through the first lap in 56 seconds.
“It was at that stage that our friend the dog came on stage. The field was about to swing down the back straight for a second time when the dog raced on to the infield and then, when somebody went to catch it, it veered right, directly into the path of the three Australians.
“Mercifully, it turned again like a demented hare, just as Thomas went into the bend at the top of the straight and disappeared into the second of the two groups of runners in the race. The brother-in-law was in there somewhere but if there was going to be a pile up, better that it should happen at that end of the race rather than up front where the Aussies were already beginning to look history in the eye.
“At half way, the stop watches hovered around 1min 58secs as Thomas swept past the crowded stand and then, as the leader began to weaken, Lincoln judged it was time to push on. Delany, still running in fifth place, closed marginally with the front runners but at the bell, reached in 2mins 58secs, the grim truth began to dawn that the Olympic champion was beaten.
“Even as Delany struggled, however, Elliott moved majestically into the lead and with Lincoln unable to go with him, it became the most captivating one-man show ever seen on an athletics track in Ireland. Thriving in the noise of it all, Elliott suddenly lengthened his stride still further, the drive in those finely muscled legs became even more piston-like and for much of the last quarter, he was sprinting in a manner which, in those unenlightened days, was almost unthinkable for a miler.
“Delany, mouth open, head rolling, came with a late surge off the last curve to wrest third place from Halberg but even this prince of battlers soon realised that there was simply no way that he could get to the two men in front of him. Elliott just a trace of a smile breaking across his face, was through the tape now and he, like us, knew that the world record, unofficially belonging to Derek Ibbotson, was his.
“The scenes which followed the announcement of the placings by Liam Browne, were quite remarkable. Elliott 3mins 54.5secs…Lincoln 3.55.9…Delany and Halberg 3.57.5…Thomas 3.58.6….the astonishment and the wonder grew with each successive call until eventually, the whole stadium erupted into a long, sustained roar which proclaimed to the city and the world that Billy Morton’s dream had been realised.
“If anybody told me,” Lincoln mused afterwards, “that I would run 3.55.9 and still finish only second, I would have thought him crazy. From now on, Ron Delany and I are going to concentrate on tennis”.
In relative terms, Elliott’s performance was and is, one of the finest achievements in middle distance running. To slice more than two-and-a-half seconds off Ibbotson’s splendid figures was an astounding result for a young man who had just finished an exacting programme in Cardiff.
And two years later, he would finally aspire to the prize which had motivated him from childhood when opening up a substantial gap on Michel Jazy of France, to succeed Delany as Olympic 1500 metres champion in Rome. His time of 3mins 35.6secs represented an improvement of almost six seconds on the record which the Irishman had set four years earlier.
Elliot’s heroics in Dublin would establish Santry Stadium as one of the best known athletics stadia in Europe, the more so after Albie Thomas had achieved another world best, this time for the two miles, on the second evening of the August meeting. And taken in conjunction with Ron Delany’s win in Melbourne, it would define the sport in Ireland for the next 50 years.
Down in Eugene’s Tavern in Santry on that evening of enduring grandeur when Dublin was at the cross roads of the world, they were still attempting to come to terms with the incredible drama they had just witnessed, as the last of the revellers were pushed out through the door.
And after one wag was unkind enough to cloud Billy Morton’s finest hour with the remark that Elliott’s stupendous figures were the product of slow watches and a fast track, the rapid fire response was on its way
“Son” The little man boomed “I’ll have you know those watches were cadged from Omega – But I’ll buy the second part.”