13 Aug 2020
Ronnie Delany is the perhaps the Republic of Ireland’s definitive Olympic legend. Winning what is regarded as the most talent-packed 1500m final in Games history at Melbourne in 1956, his legend was immediately secured. Sixty-four years on, the moment has lost none of its magic.
Athletics fans still talk about the Melbourne 1956 final of the 1500m with a hushed reverence. “It was probably the greatest field ever assembled,” said Ronnie Delany, the man who won it. “And it’s still a lovely race to watch. It was so exciting. In fact, the guy who was meant to be ringing the bell for the last lap was so excited watching it, he forgot to do it. The field was packed, and the race began on that last lap.”
Delany, from the Republic of Ireland, is now 85 but talks about the race with such clarity and enthusiasm that it could have been yesterday, not 64 years ago. And his claim about the race’s pedigree stands up. The field of 12 contained John Landy, the Australian favourite and second man to break the four-minute mile, who had set the 1500m world record in 1954; the Hungarian Laszlo Tabori, who had since shaved a second off Landy’s mark; Gunnar Nielsen from Denmark, who had matched Tabori’s record-setting feat in the same 1955 race; and future world record-holder Stanislav Jungwirth from Czechoslovakia. There was also a trio of brilliant British milers, and dazzling German Klaus Richtzenhain. Nobody really noticed the 21-year-old lad from Arklow.
“We had all these world record-holders, all these great milers and future champions,” Delany said. “I was this young man who hadn’t had any real interest in running until I was 18. But I’d gone to college in America and was producing these great times.
“The British ran a very British race, they stayed close together, not far off the lead. The three of us that won medals were at the back for most of the race. We were tight together, but with no pushing or shoving.
“Landy moved up and struck first but then I made one dynamic move with 150 metres to go, which carried me on to the straight. I got through the tape, arms outstretched, a big smile on my face. I’d achieved my destiny. I was the Olympic champion.”
Delany famously knelt to pray at the finish line, overcome with emotion. “I was quite religious, educated as a Catholic, and I instinctively went to the grass,” he said. “I acknowledged my creator and the talent I’d been given. I said a thanksgiving. The other guys all came up to salute me, I saw my Irish teammates, and it was a beautiful moment.”
The Olympic Games were a “big adventure” back in those days, according to Delany. “Everything was different,” he said. “My plane from America could only fly at about 250mph, at 10,000 feet. We stopped off at Hawaii and Fiji on the way to Australia. There were some Irish missionary priests on the plane and they gave me a blessing. We had to land in Sydney and then get a small plane from there.
“Melbourne was wonderful. Lots of Irish greeted us and gave us gifts, which was lovely. We had a great team – a lot of our boxers won medals that year – and when we got to the [Olympic] Village, we hoisted up a big Irish tricolour. The camp commandant was aghast and asked us to take it down. It was a lot of fun.”
Despite his age and the quality of his opponents, Delany was not going to the Games to make up the numbers. “I felt I had a good chance of winning, so there was a great sense of excitement,” he said. “I was at college in America and that was all about winning. They don’t play around; it was incredibly competitive. I was running cross-country, indoor races, the outdoor season, Irish races. I’d started late but I was a real race athlete.”
Delany’s gold medal was Ireland’s first since 1932; it would not be until 1992, 36 years later, that the nation won another. He was immediately one of the most famous men in his homeland – but he would have to wait for the celebrations.
Ronnie Delany, one of the world’s finest gentlemen. Also Olympic Gold Medallist in the 1500m in 1956, also President of the Irish Olympians Association. Ronnie, what’s your favourite Olympic memory? @irishathletics @worldolympians #friendship pic.twitter.com/sFdZUuFrLu— Team Ireland (@TeamIreland) December 7, 2019
“I went straight back to the US because I had exams and a semester to finish,” he said. “I’d had to get permission to go to the Olympics, so it was after my term ended that I got back to Ireland. The boxers should be grateful I didn’t come home straight away because they got another celebration.
“There was a motorcade from Shannon airport to Dublin, and I was in a convertible Mercedes,” Delany said. “It was a lovely moment for Ireland. It was a very poor country at the time, with lots of emigration. So this was a fun day. We stopped in Meath and they told me they had a boy there called Paddy George, who would have beaten me at the Olympics.
“I was driven all around town, met the Lord Mayor, and there were lots of speeches. My father made a speech paraphrasing Churchill, saying, ‘Never has one man brought so much joy to so many people.’”
That golden moment as a youngster was the high point of Delany’s athletics career, however. He would compete at Rome 1960 but was slowed by injury. “I wasn’t fit,” he said. “When I went out in the rounds of the 800m, I knew I couldn’t run the 1500m. Two weeks later, I was back to being a world-class athlete. Unfortunately, it had just been bad timing.”
Delany went on to forge a successful career, mainly in the aviation business. He has four children and 15 grandchildren, plus a housing estate and several roads named after him. His country’s most famous Olympian, everywhere he goes in Ireland, he is just known as “Ronnie”.
“I still get stopped in the street to this day to talk about Melbourne,” he said. “It brought people joy. I remember going to the [football] World Cup in 1990 with some English and American guys, watching Ireland, and every fan in the green and gold was shouting, ‘Ron! How are you, Ronnie?’ I’m so grateful to the people that supported me, they’ve always been delightful.”
Ireland’s relatively few medals since his does not perturb him. “Medals aren’t easy to come by, gold medals especially,” he said. “If you took the average country of Ireland’s size, the ratio is probably about right for somewhere with four or five million people. There haven’t been that many Olympic Games. So to get a gold, it’s a rare honour.”