Back in the day, English bobbies, notebooks poised, would invite speeding drivers to wind down their windows with the phrase ‘What’s your name then Sir, Stirling Moss?’ In much the same era the Irish, if fed up of being urged to fetch this, fetch that, hurry up would often complain ‘Give me a chance, who do you think I am, Ronnie Delany?’
The man became a legend overnight in his native country by winning the 1500m gold medal in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. He remains a legend to this day, still chipper and smart, living and working in his home city of Dublin.
Ronnie was born in Arklow, Co Wicklow, in 1935 but the family moved to Dublin a few years later during the War years. They lived at St John’s Road, Sandymount – many times I’ve run past there up and down Sandymount Strand. The young Delany was no running prodigy in his early years but nonetheless was a sporty lad and there were (and are) no lack of sporting facilities in that part of the city. His indiscriminate enjoyment of all sports he credits with building the athleticism that was to stand him in good stead later.
He attended O’Connell’s CBS primary school on the northside, and recalls how he used to run from Amiens Street (now Connolly) Station up Buckingham Street to the school in the shadows of Croke Park. His first running success was indeed within the famous stadium, leading off his school relay team to victory.
But it was only when he was 17 that Ronnie discovered athletics, joining his successful older brother Joe at Crusaders AC, who in those days trained at Sandymount. With encouragement he gained early success as a half-miler at College and Youth competitions. But it was only when, in the summer of 1953, he became the first Irish schoolboy to break 2 minutes for the 880 yards that he realised he had real talent, and he started to take running seriously. So seriously that he threw up a coveted cadetship with the Irish Army as it would have interfered with his growing ambitions to become a successful athlete.
After more success in 1954 including breaking the senior national record Delany was offered a scholarship at Villanova University, Pennsylvania. It was here that he came under the wing of coach ‘Jumbo’ Elliot. Delany became a miler and for the next five years had unprecedented success ‘on the boards’ on the US circuit with a dominant Villanova team. He was selected to run for Ireland in the 1956 Olympics and joined up with the rest of the team when they touched down in New York.
The race that defined Delany is captured on the videotape that was only seen in his native country several days afterwards. In a high-tempo 1500m final no more than 20 metres covered the field as they came to the 200m mark with Delany near the back. But with an incredible turn of speed he comes on the outside and takes the lead as they come into the home straight, and holds on to win with arms outstretched (he’d practised that) in a new Olympic record.
He continued to race extensively in the US, and also in Ireland and Europe during the summer months. This constant racing took its toll and, increasingly troubled by injury, Ronnie retired in 1962 at the age of 27. Along with the revered athletics promotor Billy Morton, Delany was a catalyst in the building of the new national athletics stadium at Santry.
Since those heady days Ronnie has had a successful business career and has led a fulfilled family life. He acknowledges the fact that being an Olympic champion is a privilege, and gives readily of his time. He is truly a legend and one deserving of the label.
Edit – as an interesting postscript you may like to visit http://www.westwaterfordathletics.org/content/view/101/19/ and scroll to the end for a unique story and photo connected to Ronnie’s Olympic victory. (Edit Nov 2010 – this link now appears to be broken.)