'You're always an Olympic champion'
Fifty years after winning gold at the Olympics Ronnie Delany is still fiercely proud to be an Olympian. He talks to Colin Murphy about his regrets, his spirituality and setting the record straight about his career
Ronnie Delany looks back with something approaching regret. Could things have been different? He was just six inches from the line. Six inches from glory. Perhaps that moment could have changed his career, his life.
De la Salle Palmerstown rugby club. Aged 27. Playing on the wing for the seconds. He used never get a pass – it was the days of 10-man rugby. And then – a pass, a run, a dive for the line – but he was held up and didn't score.
"Six inches from the line. It still sticks in my head, like some of the losses I had in races."
The next week he was dropped to the third Cs.
"I've often thought, if I got that try, would my career have gone on in rugby, and would it have been different?" He laughs, bright-eyed.
Ronnie Delany won gold in the 1,500m in the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, aged 21. He is now 71. He ran his last race aged 26. He played rugby briefly, then tennis, for fun. Got married and had three children. Joined Aer Lingus, then the B&I Line, and rose rapidly through the ranks. Then went out on his own as a consultant. But always an Olympic champion.
"You're never a former Olympic champion, you're always an Olympic champion.
"I'm an Olympian. I'm very proud of being an Olympian. I think it's important to continue the projection of the Olympics in all its better ideals, its ideals of fair play, its ideals of sportsmanship, and the dream that is the Olympic dream. I can identify with that and I like to be part of that."
A Dublin wag passed him once on the street and called out: "I never saw a man who got so much mileage out of his medal."
He speaks of "the brand Ronnie Delany", without cynicism. The brand was the Olympian brand, a noble one. It brought with it duties.
"I always had a sense of responsibility to the public... I attempted to be the 'visible' Olympic champion, whatever that meant. I think it meant being available to people.
"I was a Corinthian athlete, an amateur athlete, and for an enormous number of years I gave great service to the state in various unpaid capacities [such as on the Sports Council and the Health Education Bureau]."
At Aer Lingus, "'Ronnie Delany the celebrity' was the person to put in the picture, to visit the bigger travel agents. It was the beginning of marketing... I was a product. I was an add on to the company.
"I never found it a burden to be the Olympic champion. Even today, people come up and talk to me about the Olympic final as if it was yesterday. And congratulate me. Congratulate me warmly."
His eyes widen. He is still amazed at what his race 50 years ago means to people.
Of his own races, like the missed try, he remembers those he lost, not those he won.
"You learned out of your losses – there were reasons why you lost. I would revisit them, until I'd exercised the loss out of my system."
Of the Olympic final, he remembers it more from watching footage of it. His analysis is very simple.
"It was this one opportunity to become the Olympic champion. The race itself – it just evolved. I ran tactically very smart. I struck when I had to strike, and I won the race."
Afterwards, he collapsed to the ground, to pray.
"That was instinctive. My instinct on winning the race was to say thank you. It was a recognition that a lot of talent is God-given.
His faith was important to him. "I would have liked to be in a state of grace for a race.
"I always had a great sense of spirituality. I prayed a lot. If you're a Christian, as I am, you resort to prayer in times of crisis. Running was a crisis-time nearly all the time."
His faith now is "not so much in the formality, the orthodoxy of religion", but in the spirituality of it. "My joy now is probably in the sense of Christianity and love of my fellow man, and you get this out of family, out of being a father and being a grandfather."
Ronnie Delany exudes grace. Immaculately dressed in a dapper suit, he is lean and fit, engaging and charming. But more than that, there is a calm about him, a gentleness.
"I don't need victory that much any more. I didn't transfer my drive, my steeliness, to other sports. I never had any difficulty in separating [out] the athlete in me, the driven person, the person of destiny, of instinct."
As an athlete he was perhaps tougher than people realise. He was schooled on the boards, the American indoor tracks, and was unbeaten in the mile for five years. The stadia, and sometimes the races, were raucous bear-pits. Arriving fresh from Ireland, aged 19, on an athletics scholarship, he had to learn the tricks quickly.
"The first thing was, if someone was crowding you, you just had to put your arms up."
"You had to be a bit rough", but with "subtlety". Runners would push and jostle for position. He wouldn't push someone in front of him, but if he was being crowded he would have "no hesitation" to "push him on his hip", upsetting his balance. This wasn't aggressive – "It was negating his aggression towards you," he says.
The home of athletics in New York was Madison Square Garden and the 15,000-strong crowd there was impatient.
"This crowd of New York track-nuts almost needed blood to be sated," he writes in his autobiography. He never lost there – yet the blood they wanted was often his. The New York crowd wanted records. They'd no interest in a close, exciting race – what Ronnie Delany calls "a great foot race" – if the time was slow. Delany had no interest in records and no ability to chase the clock.
"My philosophy was to win. If I could win in four minutes six, I'd do it. If somebody wanted to chase me down to the wire, and I'd win in four minutes three, then I'd do that."
When he won in a slow time, the crowd would boo him, on occasion even throwing things. He "didn't really respond", he says, though he was "burning mad" inside: "I couldn't give two fingers to the guys up in the Bleechers."
In the autobiography, Staying the Distance, Delany characterises his career after the Olympics as an "anticlimax". He corrects this in person: "I think maybe the perception of my career was anticlimax... I continued to be a world-class athlete post-Olympics.
"One of the reasons I needed to write the book was I wanted people to know about my five years undefeated in America. I wanted people to know that I was the first Irishman ever to win a European medal. I wanted people to know that in 1961 I was a world champion at the university games. I wanted people to know I was still a great athlete when I retired.
"Those sort of things aren't known. I'm known as the Olympic champion. The race. It's the bigger career that I think is the story." p