Politics reared its ugly head for team of 1948

ATHLETICS: Seven of the 1948 Irish Olympic team are attending a celebratory luncheon in Farmleigh House next Friday where they…

ATHLETICS:Seven of the 1948 Irish Olympic team are attending a celebratory luncheon in Farmleigh House next Friday where they will recall some bitter memories, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

YOU KNOW the Olympics are getting close when they start wheeling out teams from the past, sitting them down and main-lining nostalgia so we can all get high on their tales of agony and ecstasy.

So it’s the turn of our 1948 team, who had the honour of setting forth for London, some 64 years ago – last time the old five-ringed circus was set up just across the water. Only this reunion is not so simple, not as soothingly idealistic, not when we actually sent two bitterly divided teams to London and came away with even less.

Sadly, there are only 11 survivors from the 80 that officially represented Ireland, or sadder still, got to compete: seven of them are still well enough to attend a celebratory luncheon in Farmleigh House next Friday, where they’ll be presented with a special Olympic medal of honour, and perhaps even don some of their original Olympic garb.


There’ll be plenty of smiles and reminiscing but that shouldn’t disguise what was probably the most contentious and enduringly resentful team selection in Irish Olympic history – which is saying something, given all that has happened before and since.

What no Olympic aficionado will need reminding of here is “the split”, which divided parts of Irish sport at the time, particularly athletics, and left some vicious scars on the team selection for 1948.

The records say only 10 Irish athletes competed in London last time; on closer inspection two more competed for Britain, and what about the five who were cruelly withdrawn? There’s a similar tale in swimming: an Irish team of five was selected and competed in the preliminary round, including diving great Eddie Heron, but was then promptly withdrawn because two of them – Ernest McCartney and William Fitzell Jones – happened to be from the North.

Irish cyclists had it worse again: a team of 11 was selected, and all of them were subsequently withdrawn over some lasting hostilities within “the split”. Honourable mention must also go to John Sullivan, our light heavyweight wrestler, who competed for Britain, and Irish-born Christopher Bertram Ronald Barton, who was part of the British rowing eights.

Whatever about the exact motivations, the Irish team of 1948 could have officially numbered 100, and not 80, had politics not interfered. Either way, there were some unique selections including a water polo team of nine (who unfortunately lost 11-1 to Belgium), a basketball team of 14 (who lost to Mexico, Iran, Cuba and France), and also a football team of 13 (who lost 2-1 to the Netherlands and, by beautiful coincidence, included Lieutenant Pat McGonagle – father of Patsy McGonagle, Irish athletics team manager for London 2012).

Just how much the political interference impacted on performances is debatable – but 1948 marked an ultimately disappointing show from the Irish team (unless the old artistic contests are included, as Letitia Hamilton actually won a bronze medal for her oil painting, Meath Hunt Point-to-Point.

The great pity is that certain Irish athletes remain wiped from Olympic history because of what happened in London in 1948. Not that “the split” at home was entirely at fault: the head of the then London organising committee was Lord Burghley, a true blue Brit who insisted the 1948 Games were run in accordance with IAAF rules, which is exactly what had Irish athletics blood boiling. Burghley also insisted that anyone from Northern Ireland must represent Britain.

Since 1936 the IAAF had agreed that countries could only be represented along political boundaries – and for us that meant the Irish Free State, or 26 counties. The old National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland (Nacai) disagreed, and insisted Irish teams were representative of all 32 counties. When the Athletic Union of Eire (AAUE) came along, agreeable to the IAAF rules but with only a fraction of the Nacai membership, hell was bound to break loose.

“The split” ran through the very core of that London team as John Chisholm, the newly appointed secretary of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), doubling as the London chef de mission, was decidedly Nacai.

As it turned out the team departed for London via Holyhead in two different guises, one selected by the Nacai and approved by the OCI, and another selected by the AAUE and shunned by the OCI – and neither would allow their entry forms be counter-signed.

What happened at the opening ceremony that July 29th is comical: Chisholm insisted the team parade under the banner “Ireland” – but Lord Burghley was having none of that. In the end they agreed on a banner marked “Eire”, thus parading between Egypt and Finland, although most of the AAUE athletes marched a slight distance behind the main body of the team – the only thing that briefly united them being the moment they passed the royal box, when they all reportedly looked the other way. OCI treasurer Paddy Carroll carried the tricolour, so the Nacai won that battle, yet there was constant friction at the team headquarters.

On the opening day of athletics, Joseph Kelly and JJ O’Donnell showed up at Wembley for the heats of the 100 metres: shortly before their start time they were approached by British officials and told only AAUE athletes were sanctioned to compete – so get out of the way! Three other Nacai athletes – Dermot McDermott in the 800 metres, JJ Kelly in the 1,500 metres, and Martin Egan in the 5,000 metres – were also withdrawn in similar circumstances. For the 10 Irish athletes that did compete, London proved largely forgettable: Dave Guiney (shot), Cummin Clancy (discus) and Dan Coyle (hammer) all failed to achieve qualifying marks; John Joe Barry was eliminated in the 1,500m heats and didn’t finish the 5,000m; Pat Fahy also dropped out of the 10,000m, while Frank Mulvihill finished 26th in the marathon, running 2:57:35.

The highlight was Jimmy Reardon, the man who prepared for London by living in an old bus on Bull Island: he progressed through the early rounds of the 400m, finishing fifth in the semi-final, in 47.9. Reardon was also part of the 4x400m relay, along with Charles Denroche, Paul Dolan and Reggie Myles, who looked sure of making the final before somehow dropping the baton.

Reardon is among the 11 survivors from 1948 (and one of only two athletes, along with Clancy) and will thus make his way to Farmleigh next Friday. At 87 his memories of London are mostly lost in what transpired to be an incredibly varied life, including his pioneering of the American scholarship trail, to Villanova University, in the immediate aftermath of London. At least Reardon is not bitter about 1948: but if anyone asks why he wasn’t in Helsinki four years later they’ll hear a vivid recollection of why he, too, was once shamefully withdrawn.