2016 Press Releases

UCC and the Olympics

19 Aug 2016
With the enormous media attention on each Summer Olympic games, it is sometimes forgotten that there are several other iterations of the games, and UCC has had a presence at all of them.

Gabriel Doherty, UCC School of History, on the University's long tradition of contributing to the Irish Olympic effort. 

At the time of writing the Rio Olympic games is in full swing, and both the build-up to, and the games themselves, have been characterised by a combination of noble aspirations, high drama and low farce – although anyone familiar with either the modern or classical incarnations of the games will console themselves with the thought that it was ever thus.

On the field of sporting endeavour we have been enthralled by the usual potent mixture of old champions, either being dethroned by young pretenders, or, in retaining their titles (in some cases for the second or third time), being confirmed in the pantheon of athletic greats. Outside the arenas the story has been generally less inspiring, with large protests at the cost of the games (which have been held only two years after Brazil hosted the World Cup), half-empty stadia, and even doubts about the future viability of the games themselves – although, again, such concerns are nothing new.

For the Irish team, the last two weeks or so have been particularly eventful, with the team being afflicted by a disproportionate share of controversies – whether it be the disclosure, on the eve of the opening of the games, that an Irish boxer had tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, the hotly-disputed decision by the judges to award the boxing bout involving Michael Conlon, widely-tipped for a medal, to his Russian opponent, or, most sensationally, the arrest of Pat Hickey, the President of the Olympic Council of Ireland, on suspicion of being complicit in ticket scalping.

Midst such negative publicity it almost seems to be forgotten that the Irish team, in registering two silver medals (in rowing and sailing), with the slim possibility of more to come during the remainder of the games, has, historically-speaking, performed reasonably well in Rio: certainly less well than when compared to the strong medal performance of recent games in Beijing and London, but better than in a number of previous games (most recently Athens in 2004), when no medals were won at all – indeed Ireland registered only one bronze in total in the five games combined between Rome in 1960 and Montreal in 1976. (It perhaps might be noted here as an aside that, again in keeping with a long tradition, a number of athletes with claims to Irish pedigree have won medals at the games while competing for other countries – notably team GB, the United States and Australia).

Cork and Munster athletes, coaches, support staff and officials have, of course, been integral members of Team Ireland in Rio, with the O’Donovan brothers of Skibbereen having entered both Olympic and national lore for their languidly droll response to winning a silver medal in the men’s light-weight double sculls event, their intensity on the water being matched by a characteristically west Cork insouciance off it.

It should also be noted that on the coaching front, Cork boasts one of the greatest names in the history of distance running, Patrician Brother Colm O’Connell, a native of Mallow, who has been a teacher at St. Patrick's High School in Rift Valley Province in Kenya for forty years. During that time he has coached many of the world’s greatest names in middle- and long-distance running, including Edna, Lornah and Florence Kiplagat, Peter Rono, Matthew Birir, Sally Barsosio, Rose Cheruiyot, Lydia Cheromei, and Wilson Kipketer. His current charge, David Rudisha, earlier this week successfully defended his 800m Olympic title, the first athlete in forty years to do so.

University College Cork (and its earlier incarnation, Queen’s College Cork) has a long tradition of contributing to the Irish Olympic effort. With regard to the current crop of Olympians, two recent UCC graduates stand out. Lizzie Lee graduated in electrical engineering in the early 2000s, and participated in the women’s marathon as a member of a strong Irish team. Her 57th position placed her just outside the top third of competitors in a very high quality field of runners. John Jermyn is a product of the School of Law, with postgraduate qualifications in legal studies and employment law. An experienced Irish hockey international, with over 90 goals to his credit, he was a key member of the first Irish hockey squad to reach an Olympics final tournament since 1908. While the team narrowly missed out on an opportunity to progress to the quarter final stages of the competition, John himself performed very well, and scored to bring Ireland level in the decisive match against a very strong Argentinian team, only to see the team go down to a late winner from the South American side.

In addition to the competitors, UCC is well represented among the members of the medical back-up team, with Dr James Clover, a member of staff in the College of Medicine and Health, and a Consultant Plastic Surgeon in Cork University Hospital assisting the boxers, and George Fuller (who was awarded a Masters in Sports and Exercise medicine in 2008) acting as the general team doctor. It is interesting to note that they are maintaining a distinguished tradition that stretches at least as far back as Dr Pat O’Callaghan, a native of Kanturk and a double Olympic gold medal winner in the hammer (Amsterdam 1928 and Los Angeles 1982). Dr O’Callaghan was associated with UCC in the 1930s, even though Professor John A. Murphy, in Where Finbarr played, his history of sport within UCC, correctly points out that his medical degree was originally obtained from the Royal College of Surgeons.

If one goes back a little further, prior to the formation of the NUI, to the days of Queen’s College Cork one finds the college’s first Olympian, Patrick J. Roche, a native of Blackpool, and a superb sprinter. Having matriculated in 1906 (aged 20) he was the national 100 yards sprint champion in the years 1907-10, and the 220 yards champion in 1907. He was selected for the British team at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, in which he reached the semi-finals in both the 100 and 200 yards sprints. As with so many of his generation he enlisted in the army at the outbreak of the First World War, during which he was awarded the Military Cross, before succumbing to a fatal disease in Baghdad in 1917. It seems likely, though it is not known for certain, that he crossed paths (pardon the pun) with William Cross, who trained the UCC athletics team in 1911, before going on to do likewise the British team at the 1912 games in Stockholm.

As befits a college located close to a major river, UCC rowing club has a distinguished history, and its members have contributed to Ireland’s Olympic rowing squads both on and off the water. One should note, in particular, the efforts of the Coakley brothers, Eugene (BE in Civil Engineering in 2001), who, as a member of the men’s lightweight coxless four, reached the final of the event at the Athens games in 2004 (the crew ultimately finishing 6th), and Richard, another engineering graduate (this time on the electrical side, in 2006), who participated in the 2012 London games, before subsequently emigrating to Australia, for whose national squad he has since been selected. On the coaching and management side, Mick O’Callaghan, a retired technician who was formerly employed in the Geology Department, was the women’s Rowing Team Manager at the Athens Olympics. And just to show that UCC’s talent pool in water sports is not confined to one sport, an honourable mention should also be made of Richard Holmes, another civil engineering graduate, who represented Ireland in canoeing at Barcelona games of 1992.

Cork has in recent years become a centre of excellence in race walking, with the efforts of Rob Heffernan in achieving a bronze medal in the 50km walk at the London games the ‘stand out’ achievement in Olympic terms. He is, however (and again the pun will hopefully be pardoned), merely following in the footsteps of two female walkers with strong UCC backgrounds – Gillian O’Sullivan, a History graduate from the mid 1990s, finished in a highly creditable 10th place in the 20km walk in the Sydney Olympics and was one of the favourites to medal at the Athens games before injury ruled her out of contention; and Olive Loughnane, a graduate of both UCC and NUIG, who contested four Olympics (Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London), with a 7th in the 20km walk in Beijing her best-placed finish.

With the enormous media attention on each Summer Olympic games, it is sometimes forgotten that there are several other iterations of the games, and UCC has had a presence at all of them. Rory Morrish, a UCC graduate and a distinguished orienteer, participated in the men’s 15km cross-country skiing event at the 2006 Winter games at Torino in Italy, and performed creditably in his own discipline, while also being honoured by carrying the national flag at the closing ceremony.

With regard to the Paralympics, UCC has claims on two participants in the forthcoming games in Rio: Patrick O Leary, who graduated with a BSc in Chemistry in 1995 before going on to complete a doctorate in UCC prior to a successful career in academia that has seen him appointed to a lectureship in NUIG, was one of a group of athletes who were invited to test the facilities currently in use in Rio prior to the commencement of the games. In his chosen field of canoeing this was a particular honour, as 2016 will be the first time canoeing has been included in the Paralympics. Keeping him company will be current student Niamh McCarthy, of Carrigaline, who has taken time off her studies to prepare for the discus. Last, but by no means least, three UCC students - Seán Coleman, Aoife O’Sullivan and Colm Monahan, all of whom are graduates of the Certificate in Contemporary Living (CCL) programme – were members of the Irish team who participated in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles in July 2015.

In finishing one should note that UCC students and staff have not alone contributed to making history at the games, but have also assisted in recording that history for posterity. Kevin McCarthy’s landmark study, Gold, silver and green: the Irish Olympic journey, 1896-1924 (published by Cork University Press in 2010) is based on a PhD thesis on the same topic, which he prepared under the supervision of Professor Dermot Keogh, former head of the School of History. In 2011 it was awarded a prize by the International Society of Olympic Historians, which operates under the auspices of the Internal Olympic Committee.

Among the many gems within the volume Dr McCarthy recounts the story of how, in 1920, at the height of the War of Independence, J.J. Keane, founder of the Olympic Council of Ireland, corresponded with Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, to seek admission for Ireland as a member of the movement in its own right. The correspondence, which is maintained in the Olympic movement’s archive in Lausanne, was on paper with a very elaborate letterhead – which was designed, no doubt, designed to impress the notoriously snobbish de Coubertin. It listed all the members of the putative Olympic Council of Ireland, although it is doubtful whether, in the circumstances of the time, the full Council over met. On the list were the-then Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSweeney (spelling as per the letterhead), who had graduated from UCC in 1907 with a degree in ‘Mental and Moral Science’, as well as P.J. Merriman, the-then president of UCC. It is impossible to know whether the fame attached to the hunger strike of the former played any part in the subsequent decision of the IOC to grant Ireland full member status in time for the 1924 games in Paris, but it is a possibility.

And finally, one should not forget that UCC’s famed Mardyke facilities have played host to many Olympic athletes over the years, the most famous occasion almost certainly being the hammer competition at the Cork City Sports in 1984, when Yuri Sedyck (gold medal, Montreal 1976 and Los Angeles 1984) and Sergei Litvinov (bronze Moscow 1980, gold Seoul 1988) between them contrived to break the world hammer record eight times in one night.

It was impressive stuff, even by UCC’s olympian standards.

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