Track & Field

Archives: Delany’s triumphant Olympic return (Part 2)

This is part two of Delany’s story and is taken from PJ Browne, The Villanova/Irish, 1950-2015. It will be published as an ebook in the Spring of 2015. Part one can be found here.

Preparing For Melbourne

How important was Jumbo Elliott to the Olympic success of Ron Delany? It’s a question that prompts varying, contradictory answers. There is an argument that Elliott owes his reputation as a coach to the success of Delany and Jenkins. Others insist that Elliott coached these athletes to Olympic success. Elliott’s stature as a coach should not be judged solely by the performances of his athletes at Olympic level. His successes at intercollegiate level are beyond dispute.

Elliott’s contribution to Delany’s success was huge, but in ways that are often unacknowledged. Elliott knew early that he had a potential Olympic champion in Delany. The Irishman had the aspiration and the desire, but more than anything else he had the ability. Tactically, Delany was capable of holding his own with any athlete. What Elliott provided was direction and leadership, and that vital intangible, confidence. Elliott was without peer as a motivator. This involved building a winning attitude, and the confidence associated with that.

“I had my own ideas and tactical sense at the age of 19,” insists Delany. “I was not the most coachable of athletes. Nonetheless, Jumbo was the manager of my athletic life for all those years. He took total and complete charge. He told me what workouts I should do (with a degree of consultation), he told me where I was racing, and he told me to study and look after myself. He was quite a managing influence on my athletic career at that stage of my life. To that degree I am very indebted to him.”

The aspiration and the desire to win Olympic Gold is vital as Delany has repeatedly stressed. Both coach and athlete set about achieving this eighteen months in advance. Delany’s performance in Dublin was a turning point for him. He knew that the mile represented his best chance for Olympic success. The transformation from 880 yard runner to miler was complete. “You will eat, drink and sleep the mile,” Elliott told him as he began his sophomore year at Villanova. “The gold medal at Melbourne is our goal.”

Knowing Delany’s aversion to long intervals, Elliott concentrated on 400 metre laps, increasing the repetitions gradually, and shortening the rest period as the athlete got stronger. The quarter mile session became the benchmark workout and was a tough session even by today’s standards. “As I was getting nearer to the Olympics,” Delany says, “there was no other athlete at Villanova who could do the workout I was doing.” That’s no idle boast; Villanova had decent milers most notably Alex Breckenridge from Scotland, and the American, Johnny Kopil.

“They weren’t able to do the series that I was doing, so they came in alternate quarters. They had probably 4 minutes rest between intervals, and I was running and jogging a lap, whatever that took. I was averaging 57 seconds for 10×440. I ran so many of them that I had an inbuilt clock in my head. If Jumbo asked to run a series of 64 seconds I could do it. The last two quarters might be completed in 56 and 54 seconds. You might be banjaxed but psychologically you ran the last one as if it was the final lap of a race.” Breckenridge recalled: “We all saw that Ron was in the shape of his life. Those intervals workouts confirmed what only a small number of people knew; barring injury Delany was the man to beat in Melbourne. He was able to prepare quietly away from all distractions.”

The essence of what Elliott taught was balance and relaxation. “Elliott would constantly exhort ‘Relax, Relax,’ This got into your brain so that every time you were running you had a sense of your legs almost being detached from your body just floating along.”
“I wasn’t a stylist or an aesthetic looking runner,” Delany adds, “but in my brain I was the most classical runner in the world. I had this great sense of movement, relax, smooth, never strain.”

Elliott rarely had Delany do a time trial, and when he did it was for the purpose of gauging his level of fitness. He was careful never to break down the the body with a succession of exhausting efforts. “It stemmed from his being the ultimate manager of the totality of your running,” says Delany. “One didn’t have to be concerned with questions about training, rest, racing or the planning of the schedule. One was thus able to concentrate on the running and the performance. Jumbo had no sense of self-importance. He wasn’t a writer of books, he wasn’t a particularly good lecturer, but he was highly intelligent and he knew how to manage and motivate young men.”

Of course there was much more to life in Villanova than just studying and training. There was a lively social life and Delany was popular even though he was shy. In his spare time he would do odd jobs cutting lawns, caddying at Radnor or Overbrook Golf Club, painting to make some extra spending money. Jim Reardon used to call on Delany to babysit for him. Reardon was in the automobile business and was useful to Delany when the student needed the loan of a car for a night out. He got over the shyness that held him back in his first year and he was less embarrassed around young ladies.

In his sophomore year, Delany was eligible to run on the varsity cross-country team and he enjoyed the camaraderie of squad runners John Kopil, Bill Rock and George Browne. It was satisfying to compete with these spirited runners who would never quite make the big time in individual races but who were the backbone of the cross-country team. Cross country served as a useful foundation for the more serious competition indoors and it instilled in Delany a greater sense of running for, and representing Villanova. The identity between athlete and college was becoming more pronounced.

The whole atmosphere toward training changed with the opening of the indoor season in January. Training was stepped up and there was a greater sense of urgency about the workouts. “Train hard and the races will take care of themselves,” was a frequently heard Elliott motto. For the most part that dictum held up, but Delany’s outdoor form in 1956 was uneven because of the pressure of exams, tactical naivete, injuries,and the worry that he might not be selected to go to Melbourne.

Once again Elliott made a decision that was to prove of immense psychological value to Delany. Early in the summer he entered Delany in a mile race in Compton, California. A month earlier Delany took on John Landy of Australia in a highly publicised race at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Delany, uncharacteristically, took the lead at the start and went out too fast, passing the quarter in 57 seconds, a suicidal pace.

By halfway he began to tie up and was passed by Landy and Jim Bailey, another Australian, and finished a disappointing third in 4:05. Baily shocked Landy by taking first place with both runners finishing in under four minutes. After the race, the magnanimous Landy, took the time to advise Delany on how to run the mile and pointed out flaws in Delany’s running action, which the latter subsequently worked on. Delany’s performance was disappointing, but he learned from his mistakes.

A week later, Delany was again beaten comprehensively by Landy at the Fresno Relays. However, this race coincided with exam time, and Delany’s performance was directly related to how hard he studied. Because of these two defeats, Delany was no longer considered a legitimate medal prospect for the Olympics which were only five months away. This took a certain amount of pressure off of his run up to the Games, and his first sub- four minute mile at Compton did not generate much enthusiasm.

Delany’s win at Compton restored his confidence and revealed a maturing and formidable athlete. For once he followed Elliott’s orders which was to lay back in the field but not lose contact with the leaders. Elliott determined the “contact point” as anywhere within ten yards of the pacesetter. It was an uneventful race up to the three-quarter mark, with the lead interchanging a few times between Nielsen of Denmark, Dwyer and Seaman of the U.S.

Delany did not hear the split time at the bell, and wasn’t aware that a sub- four mile was on. The final lap was fast with Delany tucked in behind the leaders. About 200 yards from home he passed the Americans and moved into an attacking position behind the Dane. From there his racing instincts took over, and he attacked at 100 yards. It was a decisive move, but it wasn’t until 40 yards from the tape that Delany edged in front and held off the sustained challenge of Nielsen.

He was swarmed by teammates and spectators who sensed that he had done something special. Moments later the public address confirmed that he had broken the four minute barrier. Delany became the seventh athlete in the world to run a sub-four minute mile, with a time of 3:59.0. “Now that I had done this as a twenty year old, I felt I could beat the world. I felt I could win the Olympics because I was good enough. Up to now it was aspirational. Am I good enough? Now, having broken that barrier, I knew I could win the Olympics.”

The Melbourne Olympics 1956

“There is only one place to finish, first. The rest are nobodies. It is not sufficient to run well, better than you have ever run before, Ron, and perhaps take a place. If you want the glory, if you want to go down in history, you must win.”

Elliott to Delany

Delany’s preparations were clouded by the controversy surrounding his selection for the Olympic panel, when almost half of the votes were cast against him. Jim Reardon and John Joe Barry were denied their rightful place in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic team by the pettiness of these same officials,and in Reardon’s case, the realistic chance of a silver medal was jeopardised. Yet Delany remained focussed on the task at hand and the selection controversy did not impinge to a significant degree.

Elliott’s belief in Delany gave him great confidence. The press had written him off because of two poor performances against Brian Hewson in Dublin the previous August. Landy was the favourite, with Bailey, Hewson, Tabori and Nielsen tipped to fill the minor placings. Those closest to Delany – Jumbo, his teammates, and his father knew different. They knew the reasons for the defeats, the injuries and the spike marks sustained in Paris, but more important, they had witnessed Delany’s preparation in the final months.

“I was not concerned,” Delany recalls in a compelling observation. “I knew I was fitter than I had ever been before in my life – far fitter than when I had run my own four minute effort the previous June. I was in my most positive frame of mind ever as a result of Jumbo’s build up. I reasoned I was as fit and strong as anyone in the race. I was faster than most over a half mile or quarter and a four minute miler to boot. I believed I had it in me to win.” Mystery is power, Gerry Farnan explained to Eamonn Coghlan over twenty years on. Delany confirmed this axiom in 1956, adding somewhat mischievously that “it is probably a good thing not to be favoured.”

Delany’s tickets and documentation finally arrived and he travelled from Villanova to New York to meet his teammates for the first time. They had arrived on a Super Constellation that originated in Shannon and they continued on to San Franscisco where they would train for a few days before heading for Melbourne. Altogether the Irish Olympians numbered 12, with one young woman, Maeve Kyle included. This team of one yachtsman, three athletes, seven boxers and a wrestler brought home one gold, one silver and three bronze medals, on average the best performance of any country in the Games. “We were at that point the greatest small nation in sport in the world,” says a reflective but proud Delany.

Shortly after arriving in Melbourne Delany sought out Charlie Jenkins, his Villanova teammate. Jenkins had arrived earlier with the American team and updated Delany on his opponents. Landy was having trouble with his legs, Jenkins informed his friend, and his threat was diminished. Delany had done his own research and knew the strenghts and weaknesses of the entire field. “I had done an enormous analysis of my opponents,” he says, “and I certainly wasn’t going in blind. It wasn’t just Landy one worried about. One had to beat all eleven opponents. That’s what it’s about.”

Delany came through the heats comfortably in third place. This was an important calculation on his part – getting to the finals with something in reserve. Two notable opponents were eliminated in the heats, Rozsavolgyi the world record holder, and Bartel, the defending Olympic champion.

The 1500 Metre Olympic Final

I formulated my own race plan. I was totally responsible for my performance.
I did not consult anybody. In the final of the Olympics, it was just a case of doing
what I was used to doing because I had raced so often.

Delany

The beginning of December brought a warm, bright, Australian summer day with scarcely a hint of a breeze. It was ideal weather for middle-distance track events. “It was difficult to remain calm,” Delany says, “and I didn’t want to squander valuable energy by being overly anxious. I resigned myself quietly to the will of God and prayed for the grace to run up to my potential. That would be enough to secure victory.”

In the warm up area prior to the race, Delany met Charlie Jenkins who had already won the first of his two gold medals. Jenkins was in a lighthearted mood and poked fun at his friend’s anxiety. Having Jenkins around may have been to Delany’s advantage in that isolated, lonely warm up area as a packed Olympic audience waited in anticipation. John Landy entered the arena with Delany and they spoke briefly. The details are lost. Moments later the finalists lined up with Delany on the outside. There was one false start and they were lined up again. The pistol fired a second time and the1,500 metre final was on. Ron Delany describes what happened over the next four minutes.

“In a crowded field of 12 one had to avoid trouble and I did this by running at
the back of the pack. After 400 metres in Halberg was leading, with Hewson
nicely placed and a bunched field right behind. Lincoln took the lead at the 800
metre mark in 2:00.3, with his compatriot Landy last and myself just in front of
him.
At the bell the entire field was very closely gathered. Lincoln and Hewson remained
in the lead. I was in 10th place but very much in the race. I wasn’t troubled at this
stage and knew where the danger men were. I knew I could not afford to allow
anyone to break into a lead as we entered the last lap so I moved wide to allow
myself a clear run at 350 yards from the finish.
As we headed down the backstretch for the last time Hewson was forging away in
front. Suddenly Landy sprinted and I reacted immediately following him as we
passed the struggling figures of the other competitors. I knew if I were to win I
would have to make one and only one decisive move. I waited as long as
possible, and about 150 yards from the finish line I opened up with everything
I had. Within 10 yards I was in the lead and going away from the field. I knew
nobody was going to pass me.”

Tactically this was a brilliant run by the Irishman. At no stage of the race did he lose the point of contact, and most of the runners were running two abreast. No one chose to
push the pace, which was surprising giving Delany’s finishing kick. He shrewdly slipstreamed his way through the field as the runners began to falter in the final lap. Going down the backstretch, he put himself in position to attack as he had done in countless races for Villanova.

Coming into the final bend he began his drive for home. He took the lead coming into the 80 metre straight and secured the victory with a sustained acceleration. The victory, in an Olympic record time of 3:41.2, was just over half a second outside the world record. For Delany, the win was a total vindication of his training, his tactical ingenuity, and his racing instincts. He covered the last lap in 54 seconds and was in the clear by four yards as he crossed the line.

Charlie Jenkins was unable to watch the 1500 metre final because he was warming up to run the 400 metre relay. “I remember standing near the fence of the practice track which was near the stadium when Delany was running. There were groups of people watching us warm up and listening to the final on the radio. The stadium was packed and they may have been unable to gain entry. The race starts and I immediately hear that Ron has taken up his customary position near the back of the field.” Jenkins stopped his warm up and listened to the radio commentary.

“I kept saying, ‘Come on Ron, Come on Ron.’ people were looking at this black American screaming for a guy from Ireland, not knowing the Villanova connection of course, and perhaps not knowing much about Delany. As the race progressed the shouts got louder. ‘Come on Ron, Move up, Move Up.’ The excitement grew as they entered the final lap. When Ron made his move coming off the final turn I knew the race was his. ‘Go Ron, Go Ron. You got it.’

Delany had won for Ireland its first gold medal for a track event since 1932. He was 21, the youngest gold medal winner in Irish track history. He had run up to his expectations, and the image of the young man crossing himself after the win created an indelible, defining symbol. “I was totally joyful,” he says now. “It’s an incredibly joyful experience and you

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Gerard O'Donnell

Gerard O'Donnell

Gerard O'Donnell is an athlete, physical therapist, and MSc student. He is current national 110m hurdles champion and ranks 3rd & 5th on the Irish all-time list for the sprint hurdles events. He is occasionally referred to as GOD, not due to his initials, but because of his heavenly beard, which he has sported since the age of 5.

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