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SPORT IN FOCUS: Irish Athletics at the Olympics

September 25, 2019

This weekend Ireland’s top athletes will be competing at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, with the long term focus being on next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020.

Thanks to our friends in Athletics Ireland – here is a brief summary of Irish athletics at the Olympic Games, along with a nod to a few of the top current performers.

Irish Athletics History at the Olympic Games

Irishmen figured quite prominently in during the birth of the modern-day Olympic movement in 1896, but the expense of travelling far from home prevented some athletes from competing at the Olympic Games until 1908. Pat O’Callaghan’s Gold in the Hammer at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam proved a key milestone for Irish athletics.

Los Angeles 1932 provided one of the great highlights in Irish Olympic History, with Pat O’Callaghan in the Hammer Throw, and Bob Tisdall in the 400m Hurdles both taking home gold. Sam Ferris, from County Down, won silver for Britain in the marathon; while Éamon Fitzgerald, a member of the all-powerful Kerry gaelic football team, narrowly missed out, coming fourth in the triple jump.

In 1956 Maeve Kyle became Ireland’s first female Olympic track and field athlete (100m and 200m). The Irish athlete had to raise £200 to cover the cost of the trip to Melbourne, where a 28-year-old Kyle came up against Betty Cuthbert who went on to become the undoubted star of the Games by walking away with three gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. Maeve Kyle went on to represent Ireland in two more Olympic Games, Rome in 60′ and Tokyo in 64′

Irish Medal Tally (Athletics)

  1. Pat O’Callaghan, Gold, Hammer 1928,

In the summer of 1928, the three O’Callaghan brothers paid their own fares when travelling to the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Pat O’Callaghan finished in sixth place in the preliminary round and started the final with a throw of 155’ 9”. This put him in third place behind Ossian Skiöld of Sweden, but ahead of Malcolm Nokes, the favourite from Great Britain. For his second throw, O’Callaghan used the Swede’s own hammer and recorded a throw of 168’ 7”. This was 4’ more than Skoeld’s throw and resulted in a first gold medal for O’Callaghan and for Ireland. The podium presentation was particularly emotional as it was the first time at an Olympic Games that the Irish tricolour was raised and Amhrán na bhFiann was played.

  1. Bob Tisdall, Gold, 400H, 1932

In 1928, Ireland, as an independent nation, had won its first Olympic gold medal at Amsterdam with Dr Pat O’Callaghan’s unexpected victory in the hammer event. This in fact brought a very special moment in Olympic history for Ireland. Within the short space of an hour Ireland won two Olympic gold medals on Monday, 1 August 1932. The first was won by Tisdall.

  1. Pat O’Callaghan, Gold, Hammer 1932

By the time the 1932 Summer Olympics came around O’Callaghan was regularly throwing the hammer over 170 feet. O’Callaghan’s second throw reached a distance of 176’ 11”, a result which allowed him to retain his Olympic title. It was Ireland’s second gold medal of the day as the aforementioned Bob Tisdall had earlier won a gold medal in the 400m hurdles.

  1. Ronnie Delany, Gold, 1500m 1956

Ronnie Delany was just 21 when he breasted the tape to win the Olympic 1500m gold medal in Melbourne on December 1, 1956, but he had already gained a maturity and confidence beyond his years. Victory in that Olympic final was the realisation of a dream that was sown many years previously. The young Ronnie dabbled in many sports but he discovered his greatest talent was in athletics.

  1. John Treacy, Silver, Marathon 1984

In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, John Treacy placed ninth in the 10,000-metre final before crowning his athletics career with a silver medal in the men’s marathon. Winner Carlos Lopes of Portugal was largely unchallenged for much of the race, with Treacy down the field until entering the top six around the 20-kilometre mark. Treacy continued to work his way up the rankings until entering the Los Angeles Coliseum stadium just behind second-placed British athlete Charlie Spedding. Treacy overtook Spedding with 150m to go, during which the Irish television commentary of Jimmy Magee listed the previous Irish Olympic medal winners up to that time.

  1. Sonia O’Sullivan, Silver, 5000m 2000

At Sydney, on 22 September, O’Sullivan won her 5000 m heat with a season’s best of 15:07.91. In the final three days later, after an enthralling sprint finish, O’Sullivan won the silver medal behind Gabriela Szabo in a National Record 14:41.02. She became only the second Irish woman to win an Olympic Medal, after Michelle Smith and the first Irish Track and Field Olympic Medalist since John Treacy took Silver in Los Angeles in 1984.

  1. Rob Heffernan, Bronze, 50km Walk 2012

Robert Heffernan finished fourth in the 2012 men’s 50 kilometres walk won by Sergey Kirdyapkin. On 24 March 2016, the Court of Arbitration for Sport disqualified all Kirdyapkin’s competitive results from 20 August 2009 to 15 October 2012.  Hefferan was upgraded to third, and formally presented with a bronze medal in November 2016.


400m Hurdles

Major championships are comfortable ground for 28-year-old Thomas Barr who added to his super 4th in the Rio Olympics, with a bronze medal at the 400m hurdle European Athletics Championships in 2018. A strong start to 2019 has seen Barr make the podium against top opposition in the diamond league.


Ciara Mageean smashed the Irish indoor 1500m record for the second time earlier in the year, before heading to Glasgow where she picked up a fantastic bronze medal at the European Indoor Championships, making her one of Ireland’s top track athletes as we edge close to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.


Fionnuala McCormack continue to plot a route towards the Olympic marathon in Tokyo with a string of stunning performances. An excellent 11th-place finish at the Boston Marathon in a time of 2:30.38 carved 44 seconds off her lifetime best. McCormack fell just six seconds shy of a top-10 finish, the result she had been craving given it would have meant automatic qualification for the 2020 Games. The race came just six months after McCormack gave birth to her daughter Isla and was her first marathon since the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Stephen Scullion became the fastest Irish marathon runner since 2011 when smashing his personal best in Texas, the 30-year-old clocking 2:14:34 to finish 10th in the Houston Marathon, won by Kenya’s Albert Korir in 2:10:02. Scullion’s previous best was 2:15:55. The result secured a qualifying time for this year’s World Championships in Doha and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.


Phil Healy the first female athlete in 40 years to hold both the 100 and 200 records in Ireland at the same time, achieving these two significant feats within a matter of weeks. A foot injury has meant some schedules changes but with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games looming, this year marks another huge season for Healy as she looks to build on recent success.

4×100 Relay

The Irish Women’s 4x100m relay team put in a super performance back in May to finish 10th overall at the IAAF World Relays. The team finished 6th in the third heat which also provided the two fastest losers.  The quartet of Ciara Neville, Patience Jumbo Gula, Rhasidat Adeleke and Gina Akpe Moses clocked a season’s best time of 44.02 to finish in sixth place in their third heat at the Yokohama International Stadium. The event proved an invaluable learning experience for the young squad, which also included Lauren Roy and Niamh Whelan.

Neville, Jumbo Gula, Adeleke and Akpe Moses were part of the U20 team that won a sensational silver medal at the IAAF World U20 Championships last July, while Neville [18] and Apke Moses [20] were also part of the senior team that broke the national Irish record at last summer’s European Championships.


One of Ireland’s European Indoor Medallist from earlier in the year, Mark English has already proven that he’s capable of competing with the elite. The Letterkenny man will be eager to add to his Olympic CV having represented Ireland back in Rio in 2016.

50k Walk

Brendan Boyce was the first athlete to secure the qualifying standard for next summer’s Olympic Games, after the Donegal man produced a personal best of 3:48:13 to finish fifth place in the 50k European Race Walking Cup in Alytus, Lithuania. Boyce will be set to compete at his third Olympics in 2020, having previously qualified for London 2012 and Rio 2016. The Letterkenny native finished 29th in 2012 and then, three years ago in Rio, improved on that with a top-20 finish.

20k Walk

Alex Wright was the latest of Team Ireland to secure the qualifying standard for the 2020 Olympic Games after his personal best performance in the 20km. Boyce secured the time of 1:20:50 in Spain earlier this month (June 2019).The Leevale Athletics Club competitor finished just under the Tokyo qualifying standard time of 1:21:00.



“Qualification period is now open in all athletics events, with a deadline of 31 May 2020 for Marathon and Race Walks qualification and 29 June 2020 for all other events. “



There are over 350 clubs nationwide. Clubs cater for all ages and abilities. Clubs provide an opportunity to try all disciplines from running, jumping, throwing to walking

Please visit www.athleticsireland.ie for more information.

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