Track & Field

Archives: Delany’s triumphant Olympic return

On 19 December 1956, Ron Delany finally returned to Ireland with his Olympic Gold medal. This is part one of his story and is taken from PJ Browne, The Villanova/Irish, 1950-2015. It will be published as an ebook in the Spring of 2015.

Ron Delany

Ron Delaney’s career at Villanova is vividly recalled in his book, ‘Going The Distance’. It is an invaluable contribution to the history of Irish athletics but it is also a frustrating one because Delany is a modest, unassuming man. There is much that he left unsaid, insightful reflections from teammates and those who followed him to Villanova. His record speaks for itself and his reticence leans to a gentlemanly humility. However, the historian is required to dig a little deeper and wider to understand the magnitude and implications of Delaney’s contribution to the Irish at Villanova. The great pity about Delaney’s career is that so much of his brilliance was seen on foreign soil in the days before TV could show us how he dominated the athletic world. He was a bigger name in the US than he was in Ireland. Olympic champions are rare, and particularly rare in Irish sport. Delany brought the Olympic Gold to Ireland in 1956 and the fact that it has not been repeated only underlines the significance of his achievement. Moreover, his achievement made it difficult for the mediocre to get a footing. In Villanova, he almost single-handedly established a tradition that wasn’t there before.

Middle-Distance tradition

John Joe Barry had the talent and the athletic attributes to suggest that he should have been the first man to run a mile in under four minutes, and should have become an Olympic champion in 1952.That he lacked the drive, dedication, discipline and ambition to see it through, makes him one of the great disappointments in Irish sport. Regrettably, Barry is more fondly remember for his love of women, drink, and a generally dissolute lifestyle. An undoubted character loved for his recklessness and what he might have done, his career was more than a story of unfulfilled promise.

Barry pioneered the modern era of accomplished middle-distance running Irishmen. He was the first middle distance runner to go to the United States on an athletic scholarship.Jim Reardon was a quarter miler. It was Barry who inaugurated the tradition of middle distance men attending Villanova. Not since the likes of Tim Smyth, who won the international cross country championships in 1932, did Ireland produce a noteworthy middle distance runner. Barry ushered in a new era for Irish athletics, supplanting the perception of Ireland as a nation of throwers and jumpers.

“In the early 1950s,” Delaney explains, “John Joe Barry was an influence on the formation of my own athletic ambitions even though we had not met at this stage. He was my hero for I witnessed his stirring victory over two of America’s best, Fred Wilt and Curtis Stone, in Lansdowne Road in 1949, a race that will remain etched in my memory forever. His friendship and support was also important in my first year in America and I easily recall his good humour.”

Then and Now

“The Irish input into the totality of Villanova is immense. The dollar contribution of the Irish in establishing the image of Villanova University and the identity created by the Irish athletes is impossible to quantify. The university is indebted to us, but we are equally indebted to Villanova. We were getting an education but we gave extraordinary good value for the money that was spent on our education.

And we did get an excellent education. Look at the young men who came out of Villanova of the earlier generation. Cummin Clancy did well. Jim Reardon, Noel Carroll, Eamonn Coghlan, Frank Murphy, Donal Walsh, John Hartnett, Ian Hamilton, Gerry O’ Reilly and of course Sonia O’ Sullivan.”

The montage of the Irish men and women who went there is a very colourful one. We all did the University proud, and I think it is only appropriate that we now have Marcus, the last Irish athlete to have been directly influenced by Jumbo Elliott, as head coach of track at Villanova. His appointment is a very satisfying denouement, and will ensure that Jumbo’s philosophy is maintained.”

Early Days

Ronnie Delany’s earliest memories of athletics are fond ones, dominated by the feats of Joe, his older brother, who was a highly accomplished all-round athlete. Routinely he would watch his brother win the 100, 200, 440, long jump, high jump and relay at the various sports that they might travel to. “I used to help him carry his prizes home from events like the Railway Union Sports near Sandymount,” Delany remembers. Not only was he a fine bigger brother for young Ron, but he was also a hero to him and set the way for his eventual entry to athletics.

Ronnie’s first trophy in sports came in a wheel barrow race at the O’ Connells School Sports held in Croke Park. “I won a seven pound pot of jam, Joe won six pots, and Paddy, another brother, won something as well. We brought home enough jam to my mother to set up a small business,” he says wistfully.

This was the environment in which Ronnie Delaney grew up and Joe was a big influence on him: “He was incredibly talented, and the long jump was his specialty.” The young Delany played tennis, cricket, and rugby and he also ran for Crusaders Athletic Club and the well liked Brendan Hennessy. “He had the ability to make athletics enjoyable,” says Delany, “and there was a lot of fun in him. He encouraged one to savour the enjoyment of all sport.”

His talent was recognised by the late Jack Sweeney and Fr.Tom Lonergan who contributed in varied but significantl ways to his progress in athletics. Lonergan impressed on Delany that athletics was a long term investment. Run to win was his motto, but don’t get carried away with the racing and don’t overdo it. Delany attributes his selectivity in choosing which races to run to this early foundation. Br. Lonergan only ever asked Delany to run in two races for the college, the Leinster Championships and the All-Ireland. Not only was Lonergan a charming individual, he was also generous with the appropriate encouragement.

Jack Sweeney, on the other hand, had what Delany calls “an intellectual approach to athletics.” He was a very professional coach, with a deep interest in the sport. He took Delany under his wing with fundamental coaching and tactical discussions. He was a strong influence on Delany’s schoolboy racing. He subsequently coached UCD.

Delany’s schoolboy years in athletics were largely nondescript because he played tennis, rugby, hockey. He entered the Leinster Colleges championships in 1952 and won. “I cycled from Sandymount to the Iveagh Grounds and then ran my races. The degree of excitement and tension in those races stood with me throughout my career.” The following year he won again. “My father bought me a pair of spikes when other kids didn’t have them,” he says.

Somehow, Delany Snr. always managed to provide his boys with the best of equipment which wasn’t always affordable or easy to acquire. His father was “quietly encouraging,” at this time. He would come and watch his son compete but he wasn’t overbearing. He was a tremendous source of moral support without ever getting too emotional. “He never did get me a track suit,” says Delany, “and I remember going to the schools championships in my white cricket flannels.” Delany’s mother, provided unconditional love and nurturing and he remembers occasions when she might get dressed up to see her youngster run. She may not have known a whole lot about athletics but her contribution to the emotional well-being of a quick-minded child should not be understated. Delany’s love for his mother was equally strong, and he recognised this quite early on in life.

At the end of the summer of 1953, 18 year old Delany was selected to run for an Irish mens’ team. It was a meet between the old AAUE and the NIAAA, and was held in College Park. “ I beat this man called Hanna on sheer strength, and I broke two minutes which was considered phenomenal in Ireland.” Hanna was an established half-miler, and Delany beat him after competing in the tennis championships during the week. Not only did Delany beat a man as a schoolboy, it was the first time that he had shown serious talent.

That winter he concentrated on athletics to the exclusion of other sports. Delany realised that “maybe I was talented and I began to train on my own. I consulted with Alford, the AAU national coach in Wales via letter, and he set me these schedules which I adhered to with ardour and determination.” This was the beginning of Delany’s commitment to athletics.

There was a significant interim period between the autumn of 1953 and the spring and summer of 1954, during which Delany went from being a part-time schoolboy athlete to being a dedicated full-time athlete. He was accepted to a Cadetship with the Irish Army, a lucrative career opportunity. He quickly learned that being in the army was not compatible with his athletic ambitions and he was given an honorary discharge by the Minister of Defence.

Giving up a Cadetship was the clearest indication yet of the young man’s athletic ambition. Inevitably the decision was frowned upon at home and rightfully so. He was giving up on a career that promised stability, security, no little status. This was 1950s Ireland, the dark and hungry decade with thousands leaving the country every year. “Initially, I thought he was out of his mind,” Cummin Clancy recalled. “He was walking away from the Irish Cadets! Mind you, as I got to know him, I began to realize that he wasn’t so mad after all, and he was certainly vindicated within two years.”

Delany continued to explore his potential as a runner. Alford introduced him to the interval training system, which he applied largely on his own. These solo practices were remarkable, because they were a little unstructured and untimed. A considerable amount of guesswork was involved, and it was a rare sight in Dublin to see the systematic application of a training trend which was just coming into vogue.

“I’d be running in the muck at Railway Union Sports Club, and I’d sometimes take off my shoes and run in my bare feet. Of course everyone thought I was mad, I was so driven. I was selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in Kilkenny and training in Nolan Park. I’d sometimes train in a field with only a few cattle or sheep for company. It required a fair amount of guts, this concept of running at race pace and jogging without ever stopping.”

His job with Electrolux required him to meet a sales target every week. He usually averaged about three sales, but would often have to work fanatically if he was falling behind. Delany’s sales territory included counties Kilkenny and Carlow.He may have looked an odd sight in Dublin when he trained, but down in Kilkenny he was regarded with even greater curiosity, stripping in less than perfect surroundings and training alone in the heart of winter.

He was fortunate to be given access to a decent 220 track in the spring courtesy of Kilkenny High School.That summer he won the AAUE championships in what was then called Shelbourne Stadium (near Ringsend/Irishtown). Now gone, this stadium had an athletic cinder track.

He competed for Ireland in the 1954 European Championships in Berne. He won his first heat, finished 2nd in his semi-final heat, and in the process he ran 1:50 for 800 metres.
This was one of the fastest times ever run by a 19 year old, and earned him a place in the final where he finished eight. These championships gave early evidence that Delany had a strong finishing kick. Jack Sweeney had impressed on him the advantage of making one positive strike in a race, a decisive burst. Delany had practiced finishing strong as a schoolboy, going flat out from 220 to the tape. The championships in Berne witnessed the application of Delany’s trademark strike for home.

“Of course I didn’t have the stamina to be competitive in the final,” he explains. “I remember getting a belt from Eckberg of Sweden on the first bend, but it was a learning experience.” His last place finish in the final was far from being a disappointment. He was inexperienced, overanxious, but ultimately he was just exhausted. To get to the final of a major championship was a considerable achievement, especially when one considers that Delany had been running seriously for less than a year, and he was far from being a mature athlete.

His track performances caught the attention of American universities. Fred Dwyer a Villanova student, and NCAA mile champion, was touring Ireland that summer with a group of American athletes. “Delany beat Mike Stanley in a race at Trinity College. Stanley was a student at San Jose State and an NCAA titleholder,” Dwyer recalls. “I wired Elliott and said ‘There’s a diamond in the rough by the name of Delany. The guy’s got a lot of talent.’” Dwyer was told to go ahead and recruit the young Irishman. He spoke to him about the tradition of Villanova athletics, Jumbo Elliott, and the verdant splendour of the college campus. “He didn’t require much convincing,” says Dwyer.

Delany had strong Olympic ambitions before any American offers came his way. He took up the offer of an athletic scholarship to Villanova for two reasons. “My goal was to come back to Ireland through my education,” he says, “and in athletics my goal was to win an Olympic Gold medal. I could never have achieved Olympic success if I stayed in Ireland.”

“There were no tracks, no competition, and no training environment. I never had any intention of living in America, and I was single-minded about this. I went there to get a good American university education to fall back on upon my return to Ireland. Winning the Olympics made no difference in those days, and there was no money paid to you for running.”

On September 23, 1954, Delany boarded a Pan American flight at Shannon Airport that would take him to America. He remembers the long drive down from Dublin in the company of his parents and his uncle Frank. He had mixed feelings as it rained heavily on the way out to the remote and desolate airport.

He witnessed the heartbreak of the departure lounge since most of his fellow passengers going on that flight would not be returning. “I was emotionally drained and upset at leaving my mother and father,” he recalls. “I kissed them goodbye and for all I knew, I would never see them again. And I was leaving too, my beloved Ireland.”

Delany arrived in New York, unaccustomed to the heat and humidity. “I was one of the last off the aircraft, and as I stepped out into the sweltering September heat I was almost overcome by the belt of warm, humid air. My tweed suit and woollen underwear made me soon wonder if I had stepped into another country or a Turkish bath.”

Delany settled in quickly at Villanova. “My first impression of the university,” he says, “was one of amazement at the size of the place, and at the beauty of the campus. Everyone was so friendly I could hardly believe it. And everything about America was so new to me I didn’t have time to be homesick. The cars, such colours size and style; the food strange at first but such quantity. The sharp colourful clothes that the students wore. The first time I walked across the campus, everywhere I looked I saw squirrels scampering beneath the trees. I had never seen a squirrel before.”

“And then you had students in college with their own cars. If you had a bike in Ireland, and two suits you were rich.” Delany was popular among the students, perhaps even a bit of a novelty in his tweeds. “People related easily to me although I used to get quite an amount of slagging. I was the Irish Mick but there was nothing malicious about it. Elliott told me to use this popularity to make my stay more pleasant. A lot of people in the nicest possible way patronised me.”

From an athletic standpoint the adjustment was easy as Delany was joining a fraternity training together, supporting each other, driving each other in the pursuit of success. That December, Delany began what was to be a lasting friendship with Charlie Jenkins, a Black American student and Villanova’s Olympic 400 metre champion at Melbourne. “Despite my outwardly friendly disposition, I did not make friends easily, and I had always been somewhat of a loner,” he explains. Alex Breckenridge recalled that Delany fitted in almost seamlessly. “He never lost his cool but once when he was standing in line at the cafeteria. The bloke ahead backed into Ron causing him to spill the contents of his tray all over his clothes. ‘’ya eedjit!’ he shouted. No one had a clue what he was on about. I thought he was swearing at him in Gaelic or some such!”

His friendship with Jenkins was different. “We were of the same mould, we worked together in training, and we were driven by the same ambition,” says Jenkins. “We pushed each other to the limits of our endurance, and helped each other in time trials and by critical advice.” The friendship was to extend beyond the track, and they shared personal problems and ideas with each other. Religion and girl friends were two of their favourite topics for conversation.

“Every Friday we’d take a walk,and we’d talk about all sorts of things from family to studies to racing and training. We reinforced each other so that by the time of the race we were more than prepared. Ron was methodical about competing; he seemed to think of everything. He was also very intelligent. Our lifestyle was a dedicated one. He was serious about taking care of business in all areas of his life. He was shrewd and industrious, somewhat shy but friendly in comfortable surroundings. We were both totally absorbed in our running.”

JP (Jim) Reardon, the first Irish student to attend Villanova on an athletics scholarship, was coming to the end of his running career when Delany arrived. “Ron was very popular at Villanova,” Reardon recalls. “People genuinely liked him. What I found remarkable was how quickly he adjusted to living in the States. He had this inner confidence or conviction. You might say he was on a mission, but he carried it lightly. He knew what he wanted and he went after it. This burning desire would not have been apparent to the ordinary student because he was actually shy and quite private. That’s not to say that he didn’t enjoy himself. He most certainly did. He used to babysit for us quite a bit and he was good company and easy to be with.”

“Mind you,” Reardon adds, “I feared that he might clash with Jumbo. Ron had definite ideas about training and tactics. I think the best thing that Jumbo ever did for him was to leave him alone. Jumbo was more of a manager than coach to him, I would say. To his credit he didn’t try to alter Ron’s running style which to a casual observer may have seemed awkward and ungainly. Ron didn’t have the classic running technique as say a Noel Carroll, but he had a great head on him, and once he got an opening, he was extremely hard to beat. I enjoyed watching him outkick his competitors. A demolition job I used to call it. He destroyed them.”

Delany was asked to report to the track only three times a week. “I don’t know if he bothered his backside training me in those first few weeks,” says Delany. Elliott had definite plans for Delany but did not immediately show his hand beyond telling him, “You’ll make a miler,” the first time he worked out under his care. This was a remarkable observation to make after watching Delany run for a few minutes. Appearances notwithstanding, Elliott had seen enough to convince him that Delany was no ordinary athlete. Then, a few weeks later he sprung a surprise on the Irishman: “Son, we might run the IC4A cross-country.”

What you have to understand about Elliott notes Jenkins was that he was a very practical kind of person. “He recognised talent and he had the knack of keeping runners in sharp running shape from November to June. He also saw when an athlete needed to back off and rest. He emphasised repeatedly the necessity of rest. ‘How are you feeling,’ he would ask, ‘Take a couple of days off.’ But he also had an uncanny sense of when an athlete could produce the big performance. On reflection you can see that he had the big picture in mind as far as the athletes were concerned, particularly his elite guys.”

Running cross country at Van Cortland Park was a new experience for Delany. It was his first cross country race and despite fears of getting lost, and the chaotic charge to the first bend, he won the race in relative ease with a 75 yard gap over the runner up. At the time Delany saw the victory as a promising start to his collegiate athletic career. But it was in fact much more significant than that, and revealed the brilliance of coach Elliott. “Psychologically this win was terribly important,” Delany now says, “I was already an American champion.”

Elliott had the reputation of being an authoritarian type coach which was well merited. Charlie Jenkins alludes to an Elliott dimension that has been portrayed in a sparing but negative way. “He was willing to take suggestions from the athlete,” Jenkins says. “Not every coach is comfortable taking on board the advice of the athlete. But Jumbo borrowed from everywhere if he felt the advice was of use to him.”

“Sometimes on a Monday he would ask me to do some 660 yard repeats. There were times when I felt that what I really needed was more sprinting work when I wasn’t getting out fast enough in the races. I would tell him that I needed more sharpening, and he invariably agreed with my reasoning. Then he would say, ‘Okay, but tomorrow I want you to run the 600s.’

It was an amicable, flexible compromise. Psychologically, this did wonders for me because it didn’t really matter on what day I ran the 660 or 220. But by letting me make this adjustment I was better able to prepare my mind the next day to do the 600s.” Track and field is encumbered with myriad details – technique, splits, fractions. And full of politics, which is why Elliott never became the U.S Olympic coach.

Work in Progress

In early December, Elliott began to prepare his athletes for the indoor season, and Delany got his first glimpse of the indoor running track which was in fact situated outdoors in the Villanova Stadium. “It was a strange looking thing,” Delany remembers, with steeply banked corners and short straightaways, 12 laps to the mile. If it was odd to look at, I was to find it even more peculiar to run on at first.”

Delany – unlike Eamonn Coghlan who took to the boards immediately – had trouble negotiating the turns at speed, and adjusting his stride to the tighter circuit. Elliott worked with Delany on these difficulties and he was soon running the laps like a veteran This preparation gave the Villanova athletes a tremendous advantage down through the years, and almost every athlete has a story about clearing snow off the boards in the morning in readiness for an afternoon workout.

Delany’s first indoor race was the 1,000 yard run in the Knights of Columbus Games in the Boston Garden. This was a different kind of racing than anything Delany had been accustomed to. He recalls it vividly: “The race began and it was like a nightmare. I tried to secure a good position at the first bend but a sturdy favourite of the Garden crowd, Carl Joyce, unceremoniously belted me aside as he came up on my inside.

“ Every time I moved up alongside a runner I got the same treatment.” Delany found that the safest place to be was at the front, and he edged his way to the finish, a winner in a new track record time of 2:10.2. As he jogged his way slowly around the track he was given a rousing reception from the huge Irish presence in the Garden. Elliott, as always, economic with praise, came up to Delany, shook his hand and told him, “You did great son, but boy have you got a lot to learn.”

Boarding the midnight train back to Philadelphia, Delany had mixed emotions about his first indoor win. He had never received such a battering in a race. As the Pullman sleeper made it’s way south, Delany was unable to sleep. “After a hard race I could never go to sleep – my body tingled in ever muscle from the exertion undergone.” He spent the journey awake, alone with his thoughts, half dozing to the rhythm of the motion, jarred fully alert to the jangling of milk churns being loaded on and off the train at almost every stop.

Back on the Villanova track the following Monday afternoon, Elliott pulled Delany aside and schooled him on the finer points of self-protection. “Hold your elbows high and ready when you are being crowded,” Elliott told him. If you must push an opponent he added, the most effective place was at the hip level where it was easier to upset his equilibrium. It didn’t take long for the young Irishman to learn the tricks of the trade, and the lesson was not forgotten. Delany never lost a race in the Boston Garden. He was to lose two races elsewhere that winter, but for five years thereafter, he went undefeated indoors.

Delany had his first confrontation with Elliott during that indoor season. Once more, it was due mainly to naiveté on the athlete’s part. Delany (as Reardon feared) was not an uncritical student, as he explains: “It appeared I was going to have to race every weekend throughout the winter. Frankly, I felt I was being rushed and brought on too fast. I felt then this American system of race, race, race, would burn me out. I wanted to run my best races for Ireland in her green international singlet and not to leave my talent and strength in the smoke-filled indoor arenas of America. I expressed such sentiments to Jumbo.”

“Coach,” Delany said, “I think you’re running me too much.” Elliott was unimpressed, and the reply was terse and to the point. “Son,” he said to Delany. “I plan the races. You do what you’re told. If you don’t like it – Down the Pike!” That meant down the Lancaster Turnpike and back to Ireland. “I heard him clearly,” Delany says, “and I never asked again.” Delany now understood the reality of his situation at Villanova. The life of a student athlete was not going to be a bed of roses, “ and the college demanded and got its pound of flesh.”

Delany was relieved when the indoor season ended. For all his misgivings, he had caught the attention of American commentators, and was regarded as one of the fastest middle-distance runners on the collegiate and national circuit. He was less than convincing on the outdoor circuit, which began easily enough with the Iona Relays leading up to the Penn Relays in which Delany ran 3 races. He was never on a losing relay team at Villanova. Before returning to Ireland in the summer of 1955, Delany first had to ensure that he passed his end of term exams. He was fortunate in this respect since freshmen were not expected to continue training and racing with the same intensity for the outdoor season.

Delany was not a brilliant student but exams were no particular bother to him. “My approach to studies was the same as it was to athletics,” he explains. “I never studied particularly hard but studied regularly. I established a pattern of going to the library each evening after dinner and staying there until closing time. Many nights I would fall asleep at the study table from the sheer exhaustion of a hard training session. With the strict silence rule in the library I could really get a good sleep.” Like his racing, Delany stayed awake long enough to pass the exams in relative comfort.

Billy Morton paid for his tickets to Ireland that summer to compete in some races in Dublin. Delany was not expecting to return to Ireland so soon but was thrilled at the prospect of going home and racing before Irish crowds. Before he departed Villanova, Elliott told Delany to “try a mile when you go home for the summer.” Delany had come a long way in less than a year. He was more self-confident and assured when he arrived home. He also sported an American style crew cut and had an American accent. “My God, what have you done to your head?” was his mother’s greeting. “What will the neighbours think?” The American accent quickly left this returned Yank and he was soon reinstated with his relatives and pals.

Delany didn’t train much that summer but retained an impressive level of fitness. He had some epic struggles with an old foe, Derek Johnson, England’s silver- medallist-to-be in Melbourne. He broke the Irish record for the 880 distance in one of these encounters, but the significant performance took place at College Park. Delany followed through on Elliott’s suggestion and ran a mile on grass in the Park, setting a new Irish record with a
time of 4:05.8. That was a respectable time even in those days. For Delany, “it was quite stunning to run that time in my first mile race and confirmed Elliott’s prediction.”

Meb, Coach Larsen with the Track&Field News, 
photo courtesy of UCLA newsroom
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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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