Olympic Memories Part 1: 1980-1996

By Walter Lawler

 Introduction:

It’s unusual to be looking forward to a Summer Olympics in an odd year, but circumstances we’re all too aware of have dictated so.  Given to uncertain nature of the pandemic I’m possibly being slightly presumptive that they will go ahead at all!  As I write though it looks pretty certain they will.  Olympics usually take place on a leap year, right the way back to the resumption of the modern games in 1896 in Athens.  The last time the Olympics was postponed was due to World War 2, after the Berlin Games, or The Nazi Olympics of 1936, both 1940 and 1944 didn’t take place.  Tokyo had been awarded the 1940 games and London 1944.  The games resumed in 1948 in London.  The only other games postponed were due to WWI, when Berlin had been awarded the games.  In total 4 games have been postponed, 1916, 1940, 1944 and 2020 due to Covid.  It’s quite remarkable that the Coronavirus is the only reason an Olympic Games didn’t take place bar a World War!  So hopefully the Games in Tokyo in 2021 will offer us some sporting relief and also a sign that we are emerging from the Covid Pandemic and returning to some sort of normality.

In this piece I will concentrate on Olympic Games from 1980 onwards.  I want to speak about personal Olympic memories that standout, not necessarily Irish ones but events and moments that made an indelible impression on me.  I’ve read and watched a lot of documentaries on Jesse Owens remarkable 4 gold medal wins in 1936 but I’ll leave it outside my remit.  Likewise, Pat O’Callaghan’s two gold medals in the hammer in 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games, a staggering achievement, will be left until another day.  Ronnie Delaney won gold in the 1,500m, the metric mile, age 21 on the 1st of December 1956.  That’s an unrivalled track achievement for an Irish Olympic team.  It’s interesting that this Olympics was held at the start of Northern Hemisphere Winter, and also Melbourne is the most southerly city an Olympics was held at.  In 1998 I met Ronnie Delaney in 1998 when I worked in Dundrum in Motor Tax with Dublin Corporation.  He was 73 years old then, and still looked like he could do a very decent time for a mile.  We had a great chat and he was an absolute gentleman.  I remember as I was sorting his tax renewal form joking with him that he looked like a man that didn’t need a car at all to get around!  He replied that he was only ever a middle-distance runner and the car was handy for longer trips out of the city!  Ronnie is 86 now and appears at various Olympic occasions and looks as spritely as ever.

 

Ronnie Delaney 1956 Olympic Gold Medal Winner

 1980, Moscow

I was first introduced to the Olympics as a 4-year-old in 1980.  Given my age There were only a few brief memories.  We were hearing the word ‘Olympics’ a lot on tv, and also, I had started school and it was being talked about a bit in the playground.  My brother convinced me that basically the competition was open to all…including chickens.  We tied an unfortunate chicken to the back of our tricycle and the wise older brother said we should pedal around our yard as fast as we could to get the said chicken fit for the Olympics.  After an hour of heavy stamina training dad came upon us and explained a few things to us and released the poor hen.  That was my first lesson on the Olympics, chickens didn’t take part!   We watched Eamonn Coughlan come in 4th in the 5,000m, particularly cruel on Eamonn as he had finished 4th in Montreal in 1976 too, then in the 1,500m.  In 1980 the name of the winner of the 5,000m stuck with me, Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia, or as he was known and as the commentators called him, ‘Yifter the Shifter’.  Eamonn Coughlan won a gold medal in the inaugural World Championships in the 5,000m in Helsinki in 1983.  A great achievement, but the man deserved at least an Olympic medal, if not title.  He won track meet after meet between Olympics, particularly dominant in the Wanamaker Mile.  Due to his prowess on the track indoors, Eamonn gained the nickname ‘the Chairman of the Boards’.  My last memory of the 1980 Olympics is the American boycott due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979.  All I vaguely knew was that the Americans weren’t competing in Moscow.  The Soviets and the East Germans (GDR) were dominating the medal table. Great Britain were back in 9th on the table, far less dominant than they’ve been in recent Olympics.  For the record Ireland won two medals in 1980, anytime we win a medal at an Olympics it can be deemed reasonably successful!  We won silver in sailing; David Wilkins and James Wilkinson, in the Flying Dutchman class.  Hugh Russell won a bronze medal in Boxing, the Men’s Flyweight division.

 

Eamonn Coughlan, 1983 World Championships

1984, Los Angeles


This was a very memorable Olympics for me, basically I had an idea of what was going on.  Again, with had a boycott, the USSR, East Germany and Bulgaria being the most notable examples.  The USSR announced its intentions to boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics on May 8, 1984, citing security concerns and “chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States.”  In reality it was tit for tat stuff, the USSR boycotting the Games as the US did the Moscow Games.  The Cold War would effectively end by the end of the 1980s but pre-Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power in 1985, few could predict it.  The Able Archer crisis of November 1983 had brought the World closer to war than many would of the world’s populace knew at the time.  NATO Nuclear War practice moves had almost been mistaken for the real thing by the USSR.  An air of distrust prevailed between the two Superpowers and their allies.

 

The variety of sports is what makes the Olympics, the track and field events, aquatics including swimming, synchronized swimming and diving, gymnastics, weightlifting, boxing, badminton, equestrian, sailing, rowing, canoeing, archery, basketball, fencing, soccer, handball, volleyball, soccer, judo, modern pentathlon, shooting wrestling and more.  There really is something for everyone, even those with a very casual interest in sport.  Each morning I got up around 7am to watch Day Break LA, a programme which covered what happened in the Olympics in LA overnight in Ireland, GMT being 8 hours ahead of LA.  A fresh-faced Michael Lyster of ‘The Sunday Game’ and Moya Doherty of ‘The Live Arts Show’ presented the show.  Other parts of the programme featured behind the scenes action from Los Angeles with Vincent Hanley, as well as all the up to the minute sports results from the games, dance classes, cookery, weather reports and news bulletins.  By evening time we were watching what was taking place in the middle of the day in LA.  The star of the Olympics for me, and probably most viewers, was Carl Lewis, a 23-year-old sprinting and long jump sensation from the US.  He equaled Jesse Owens 4 gold medals in track and field with wins in the 100m, 200m, 100m relay and long jump events.  He was a beautifully balanced runner, not explosive out of the blocks, due to his height and physique, but he came into his own in the later 30-40 metres of the 100m race as opponents tired more quickly.  Evelyn Ashford won the women’s 100m final.

Carl Lewis running the anchor leg of the 100m relay, LA 1984

The powerfully built and athletic Daley Thompson of Britain won the Men’s Decathlon with stellar performances in most disciplines.  I tend to associate Lucozade with Thompson as he appeared in many tv ads for the drink at this time.  Lucozade bottles came in glass then and you had to peel off an orange layer of cellophane paper off the bottle.  I started to ask my mam to buy bottles of Lucozade and started to consume a lot of it, convinced it would transform me into an Olympic champion, I wasn’t quite sure in what yet.  Another great I was privileged to watch in 1984 was the great Edwin Moses in the 400m hurdles.  From August 26, 1977 to June 4, 1987, Moses won every single 400m hurdles race he contested, adding a second Olympic gold on home soil in Los Angeles in 1984. His world record unbeaten streak lasted 9 years, 9 months and 9 days and during it, he won 122 races (109 finals).  With his height of 6’2″, Moses’ trademark technique was to take a consistent 13 steps between each of the hurdles, pulling away in the second half of the race as his rivals often took 15 strides or changed their stride pattern.  Ed Moses was an all-round good guy, still working today for humanitarian causes and an advocate of world peace.

 

One of the great controversies of the games was the contact, and eventual collision, which led to Mary Decker Slaney (25) falling in the women’s 3,000m final.  Zola Budd (18) was involved and the race itself was seen as a contest between the two for gold. Budd was a South African who competed for the UK in 1984.  She would return to South Africa and represent the country of her birth in the 1992 Barcelona Games.  Unusually for a track athlete she trained and raced barefoot.  At 1700 metres, the first collision occurred. Decker came into contact with one of Budd’s legs, knocking Budd slightly off balance. However, both women maintained their close position. Five strides on, at race time of 4:58, Budd and Decker again made contact, with Budd’s left foot brushing Decker’s thigh, causing Budd to lose her balance and sending her into Decker’s path.  Decker’s spiked running shoe came down hard into Budd’s ankle, just above the heel, drawing blood.  Videotapes later examined by Olympic officials showed Budd visibly in pain.  However, Budd maintained equilibrium and kept stride.  Decker stood on Budd, then shortly after, collided with the British runner and fell spectacularly to the curb, injuring her hip.  As a result, Mary Decker did not finish the race. Decker was carried off the track in tears by her boyfriend (and later, husband), British discus thrower Richard Slaney.  Budd, deeply affected by the occurrence, continued to lead for a while, but faded, finishing seventh.  Budd tried to apologise to Decker in the tunnel after the race, but Decker was upset, and replied, “Don’t bother!”.  An IAAF jury found that she was not responsible for the collision.  Decker said many years after the event: ‘The reason I fell, some people think she tripped me deliberately. I happen to know that wasn’t the case at all. The reason I fell is because I am and was very inexperienced in running in a pack.’  In general, it is the trailing athlete’s responsibility to avoid contact with the runner ahead, however whether Budd had sufficient control to have pulled into the curve and avoid Slaney is debated to this day.   At first the US media sided with Decker, while the British press supported Budd. A link below to the controversial race.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0vxAk6XsLU

As the Olympics Ireland had no medal won and the games were drawing to a close.  On 12th August John Tracy showed great grit and determination to win a silver medal for Ireland in the marathon in hot conditions. It was the perfect end to the games for me.  The brilliant Carlos Lopez of Portugal won the race, at the age of 37.  John Treacy had run in relatively subdued fashion, by his standards, in the 10,000m coming in 9th when he decided to run his first marathon.  He was a very talented athlete on the track, road or cross country.  He put back to back world cross country championships in 1978 and 1979.  I think it’s best to leave the final word to Jimmy Magee on John Tracy’s Olympic silver medal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiikQHsDu5E

 

John Treacy crossing the finish line in the LA marathon

1988, Seoul


The XXIV Olympics were held from 17 September to 2 October 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.  I had just started first year in boarding school and didn’t get to see as much of the action as in 1984 or following Olympics.  Seoul was 9 hours ahead of GMT so as we watched some action between 7-8pm we were generally watching what took place the evening before at the Olympics.  We watched the action for about an hour in the ‘play hall’ in Knockbeg College.  It was a room with 4 table tennis tables and a tiered stand that seated about 30 people in front of a television which tended to lose its RTE signal.  Often a first year would be ‘asked’ to stand with an aerial beside the tv!  Meath footballer, and former Knockbeg pupil, Liam Hayes, was a journalist with the Sunday Press at the time.  He was looking forward to covering the Seoul Games.  However, Meath drew with Cork on 18th September in the All-Ireland Football final and the replay (which Meath won) was played on the 9th October.  Liam had to forego his Olympic odyssey to prepare for the replay with Meath.  I remember a headline on a daily paper at time stated, ‘Hayes sells his Seoul’.  Even though there were some dramatic moments in the games, they remain one of the duller ones for me.  Also, Ireland didn’t win a medal of any colour.  ‘One Moment in Time’, performed by Whitney Houston, became the theme song for NBC’s coverage of the 1988 Olympics from Seoul.  Houston recorded this for the album One Moment in Time: 1988 Summer Olympics Album.  Anytime I hear the song played it immediately reminds me of Seoul ’88.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96aAx0kxVSA

The big story of this Olympics was Canadian Ben Johnson beating Carl Lewis to win the 100m title in a world record time of 9.79 seconds only to be disqualified after he tested positive for the anabolic steroid, stanozolol, three days after.  Johnson looked seriously ‘pumped’ with blood shot eyes during the heats and final.  This was my first real introduction to doping in sport, though it had reared its ugly head in the Tour de France of that year.  Carl Lewis was awarded the title, he also won the long jump and claimed silver in the 200m.  He failed to make the final of the relay as the US dropped the baton in a heat.  When his dad, William Lewis, died of cancer at age 60, in 1987 Lewis placed the gold medal he won for the 100 m in 1984 in his hand to be buried with him.  “Don’t worry,” he told his mother.  ‘I’ll get another one.’  After having demolished the world record in the 100-metre dash at the US Olympic trials in Indianapolis, sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner set an Olympic record (10.62) in the 100-metre dash and a still-standing world record (21.34) in the 200-metre dash to capture gold medals in both events.  To these medals, she added a gold in the 4×100 relay and a silver in the 4×400.  Griffith Joyner died suddenly at her home, in her sleep, in 1998.  Around 1988 she was the subject of speculation about the use of PEDs (performance enhancing drugs).  Before the 1988 track and field season, Griffith-Joyner’s best time in the 100-meter sprint was 10.96 seconds (set in 1987).  In 1988, she improved that by 0.47 seconds.

 

Ben Johnson, Seoul 1988.

Sergei Bubka of the USSR was the outstanding male pole vaulter of his generation.  He dominated World Championships and other competitions but had a relatively poor record in Olympics.  In 1988 Bubka competed in the Seoul Olympics and won his only Olympic gold medal clearing 5.90 m.  US boxer Roy Jones Jr was the outstanding boxer in Seoul, he competed in the 156ib category.  He dominated his opponents, never losing a single round en route to the final.  His quarterfinal match-up with Soviet boxer Yevgeni Zaytsev was the first U.S./Soviet Olympic bout in 12 years (because each country had boycotted one Summer Olympics during that period).  The final was met with controversy when Jones lost a 2–3 decision to South Korean fighter Park Si-Hun despite pummeling Park for three rounds, landing 86 punches to Park’s 32.  Reportedly, Park himself apologized to Jones afterward and the Italian referee Aldo Leoni, while raising Park’s hand, told Jones that he was dumbstruck by the judges’ decision, murmuring: “I can’t believe they’re doing this to you.”   One judge shortly thereafter admitted the decision was a mistake and all three judges voting against Jones were eventually suspended.  An official IOC investigation ending in 1997 found that, although the offending judges had been wined and dined by South Korean organisers, there was no evidence of corruption in the boxing events in Seoul.  Jones was awarded the Val Barker trophy, as the best stylistic boxer of the 1988 games, which was only the third and to this day the last time in the competition’s history when the award did not go to one of the gold medal winners.  The incident led Olympic organizers to establish a new scoring system for Olympic boxing.  Janet Evans, the 17 year old American, won gold medals in the 400-metre individual medley, the 400-metre freestyle (setting a world record), and the 800-metre freestyle (setting an Olympic record).  Her name was one we would hear in the future.

Sergei Bubka, in the Pole Vault, Seoul 1988

1992, Barcelona

I remember this Olympics particularly well as just prior to the opening of the games I tore knee ligaments playing Gaelic football and was on crutches for 3-4 weeks.  I got to see a lot of the action.  The song Barcelona was written to be the theme song of the 1992 Summer Olympics but was replaced due to Freddie’s death in November 1991.  ‘Amigo Para Simper’ sung by Sarah Brightman & José Carreras at the Opening Ceremony became associated with the games.  For Ireland this was a much brighter Olympics.  Michael Carruth won gold in the welterweight boxing division, beating the Cuban, Juan Hernández Sierra, in the final.  The Cubans were excellent boxers and tended to do very well in Olympics.  He was coached by his father Austin and Cuban Nicholas Cruz.  This was the first Irish gold medal won since 1956 and Ronnie Delaney.  Wayne McCullough from Belfast won a silver medal at bantamweight.  He was defeated in the final by the classy Joel Casamayor of Cuba.  1992 marked Sonia O’Sullivan’s emergence on the World stage.  At Barcelona, in the 3000 m final, O’Sullivan was always in contention, and hit the lead in the back straight on the final lap, but she was eventually outsprinted and finished fourth. Narrowly missing out on an Olympic medal was made all the more frustrating when the silver medalist from the race Tatyana Dorovskikh tested positive for a banned substance the following year.  Sonia, still only 22, gave an interview to RTE after the race saying she ‘wasn’t scared anymore’.  It was the biggest stage she had ever performed on and she would learn from the experience.

 

A disappointed Sonia O’Sullivan after coming 4th in the 3,000m

A link below to ‘Amigo Para Siempre’ sung by Sarah Brightman & José Carreras at the Opening Ceremony.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmUS9vu-O1s

The 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball team, nicknamed the ‘Dream Team’, was the first American Olympic team to feature active professional players from the National Basketball Association (NBA).  The team has been described by journalists around the world as the greatest sports team ever assembled.  All their matches were eagerly anticipated.  At the 1992 Summer Olympics held in Barcelona, the team defeated its opponents by an average of 44 points en route to the gold medal against Croatia.  All time greats including, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Scotty Pippen, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson all played.  The won the gold at their ease and with swashbuckling entertainment.  As per each Olympics, the 100m is eagerly awaited.  Linford Christie of GB won gold in the men’s event.  When the Englishman surged across the line to win gold, he became the oldest man, by four years, to win an Olympic 100m title. When his son Merric Osborne became a father, it made Christie a sprint champion grandfather at the age of just 35.  Gail Devers won the women’s 100m event and should have won a double but tripped coming up to the finish line in the 110m hurdles final.

 

Gail Deevers falls near the finish line after clipping the last hurdle in the 110m hurdles

Other notable moments at this Olympics included Fermín Cacho winning the 1,500 metres in his home country, earning Spain’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in a running event.  In women’s artistic gymnastics, Tatiana Gutsu took gold in the All-Around competition edging the United States’ Shannon Miller.  The young Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary won three individual swimming gold medals.  Jennifer Capriati won the singles tennis competition at the age of 16. She had previously earned a spot in the semifinals of two grand slams at the age of 14.  Evelyn Ashford won her fourth Olympic gold medal in the 4×100-metre relay, making her one of only four female athletes to have achieved this in history.  Overall a really memorable games and a good one for Ireland.

 

1996 Atlanta

A trembling Muhammad Ali (Parkinson’s Disease) Lights the Olympic Torch, 1996

The 1996 Games were given a dramatic and emotional start when the cauldron was lit by sporting legend Muhammad Ali.  However, on 27 July tragedy struck when a terrorist bomb exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park.  Two people died and a further 110 people were injured.  For the first time in Olympic history, all 197 recognised National Olympic Committees were represented at the Games. Beach volleyball, mountain biking, lightweight rowing and women’s football made their first appearance and sailor Hubert Raudaschl (AUT) became the first person ever to compete in nine Olympic Games.  In track and field, Marie-José Pérec, the French athlete, won the 200m and successfully defended her 400m title.  She became the most successful French female athlete of all time and the first athlete to win the 400m twice.  Not to be outdone, Michael Johnson of the US became the first man in Olympic history to run and win both the 200m and 400m.  His victory over 200m in 19.32 seconds established a new world record.  Johnson’s stiff upright running position and very short steps defied the conventional wisdom that a high knee lift was necessary for maximum speed.  Donovan Bailey of Canada won the men’s 100 m, setting a new world record of 9.84 seconds at that time. He also anchored his team’s gold in the 4 × 100m relay.  In tennis, Andre Agassi won the gold medal, which would eventually make him the first man and second singles player overall (after his eventual wife, Steffi Graf) to win the career Golden Slam, which consists of an Olympic gold medal and victories in the singles tournaments held at professional tennis’ four major events (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open).

The Elegant Marie-José Pérec in Atlanta

We also said goodbye to Carl Lewis in his last Olympics, at 35 years of age.  He went out in style winning the long jump competition.  Though he did not match past performances, his third-round leap of 8.50 m (27 ft 10 1⁄2 in) won gold by 0.21 m (8 1⁄4 in) over second-place finisher James Beckford of Jamaica.  Lewis’ 8.50 m (27 ft 10 1⁄2 in) jump was also officially declared tied with Larry Myricks for the masters’ record for the 35–39 age group.  Lewis’s nine gold medals also tie him for second on the list of multiple Olympic gold medalists with Paavo Nurmi, Larisa Latynina, and Mark Spitz behind Phelps.  One favourite personal memory of mine was Lewis taking home a little plastic bag of sand from the Atlanta long jump pit as a souvenir.  Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu became the first weightlifter in history to win three consecutive Olympic titles.  ‘When he eats at a restaurant, nobody asks him to pay the bill; if he breaks the speed limit, he does not get fined, and the police wish him a pleasant journey,’ wrote a Turkish journalist.  The benefits of being an Olympic weightlifting champion in Turkey!  In women’s gymnastics, Ukrainian Lilia Podkopayeva became the all-around Olympic champion.  Podkopayeva also won a second gold medal in the floor exercise final and a silver on the beam, becoming the only female gymnast since Nadia Comăneci (1976) to win an individual event gold after winning the all-round title in the same Olympics.

‘Reach’, sung by Gloria Estefan, and co-written by Estefan with Diane Warren and was one of the memorable official songs of the Games.  Link provided below.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3EFOSJ4ZQc

 

The Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey had been competing in the Olympics since she was 20 years old in Moscow.  She won a bronze medal in the 200m there.  She had won some Olympic silvers, but never gold, over her long career.  She had so many bronze medals from Olympic and World Championships that she became known as ‘The Bronze Queen’.  At 36 years of age Atlanta looked like her best shot at gold.  She lost by five thousandths of a second to Gail Devers in the 100m final in Atlanta when they both recorded the same time of 10.94 seconds.  Amazingly this was not her closest finish to Devers – she recorded a time of 10.812 seconds to Devers’ 10.811 seconds in the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart – still the closest finish at an international athletics meet.  And she won silver in the 200m final when losing out to Marie-José Pérec.  Ottey would compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympics at 40 years of age, coming 4th in the final.  Nine years later, after the disqualification of Jones for steroid abuse, Ottey’s fourth place was retroactively promoted to third – giving Ottey her ninth Olympic medal.  She also anchored Jamaica to silver in the 4x100m relay in Sydney.  Ottey moved to Slovenia and became a citizen of the country in 2002.  Merlene competed for Slovenia in the 100 metres at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, where she reached the semifinals, aged 44.  She failed by 0.28 seconds to reach her eighth Olympic Games, aged 48 in 2008.  She continued to rip up the masters’ women sprinting records, and at the age of 52, competed in the 4×100 meters relay at the 2012 European Athletics Championships.  A Merlene Ottey quote I read 20 odd years ago has stayed with me ever since ‘I believe the mind is the most powerful weapon; we either use it to achieve great wonders, or allow it to destroy us.  I have for many years chosen the former’.

The great Merlene Ottey

The Olympics was particularly interesting from an Irish viewpoint.  Boxer Francie Barrett was the first member of the Travelling Community to represent Ireland.  He carried the Irish flag at the Opening Ceremony.  Hopes were high that Sonia would not only win an Olympic medal, but a gold in the 5,000m but perhaps also the 1,500m, talk about pressure.  Sonia was the reigning World Champion in the 5,000m winning in Gothenburg in 1995.  Swimmer Michelle Smith had been steadily improving over the past two years.  In 1995, Smith set Irish records in 50 m, 100 m, 400 m and 800 m freestyle, 100 m backstroke, 100 m and 200 m butterfly, and 200 m and 400 m medley events. She was ranked number 1 in 200 m butterfly, sixth in 100 m butterfly and seventh in 200 m medley; she made sporting history by becoming the first Irishwoman to win a European title in 200 m butterfly and the individual 400 m medley in the same year.  But the Irish swimmers had never set the world alight in Olympics and people still doubted she’d win or medal.  There was an old running joke that an Irish swimming team were successful when none of them drowned at an Olympics!  In the early hours of Sunday 22 July, Irish time, Michelle won gold in the 400m freestyle there were scenes of joy around the country, especially in her native Rathcoole.  The first hint of controversy occurred when Smith qualified for the 400m freestyle event at the expense of the then world-record holder Janet Evans, an American swimmer who finished ninth in the preliminary swims with only the top eight advancing.  As the week went on Smith would win 2 more golds and a bronze medal.  Evans and others hinted at her dramatic improvement in times at a relatively late age for swimmers, in their mid-20s.  Most of us were caught up in the euphoria and felt the talk and gossip was pure begrudgery.  We couldn’t comprehend at that time that an Irish person might dope.  At any rate Bill Clinton, the then American President, shook hands with Michelle and had a few words, all seemed well again.  Smith won three gold medals and a bronze medal in Atlanta, making her Ireland’s most decorated Olympian.  Those medals were never taken from Smith, who always maintained her innocence, she was banned from the sport in 1998 for tampering with a urine sample, with alcohol.  Looking back, it was an end to sporting innocence for a lot of Irish people.  Her husband and coach being a performance enhanced drug banned Dutch discus thrower didn’t help with the optics either.

Michelle Smith, 1996

With 3 gold medals and a bronze under our belt it seemed like we were in for a really record haul of medals once Sonia hit the track.  Her early season form and world title the previous year had made her one of the favourites for the 5000m; however, news of double-world record holder Wang Junxia competing made many observers uneasy in their opinion.  The Chinese had come out of nowhere to beat Sonia into 4th place at the 3,000m in Stuttgart at the 1993 World Championships.  In the heats everything seemed on track when she easily won her heat.  However, in the final on 28 July, she was badly affected by a stomach upset, and after starting well gradually faded away and failed to finish.  From home on our tv set she looked extremely anxious.  We all wondered had the pressure been too much, the expectation heaped on this young lady’s shoulders.  Did Michelle Smith’s achievements add more pressure?  The 5,000m was her best event but we all hoped for better in the 1,500m.  However, in the latter race she came second last in her heat.  She hadn’t recovered in time from the stomach bug.  It was easy to see pre-race that she wouldn’t perform to anything near her best, she looked tired, almost distressed.  Thankfully there would be better days ahead for Sonia.  She showed her resilience by winning two World Cross Country Championships in 1998 and silver in the 5,000m in Sydney.  A pity she didn’t win the gold that her talent deserved.  She’ll always be near the very top of the list of Irelands’ greatest ever sports stars given the competition in her running disciplines and her achievements.

I’ve looked back over highlights from five Olympic Games between 1980 and 1996.  On my next post I will move into the new millennium and the Sydney Games in 2000.  I’ll cover five more Olympics up to our last games in Rio in 2016.

 

Citius – Altius – Fortius!

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