After completing exams the Villanova track team headed west in May of 1956 to compete in the Compton Invitational meet and the National Collegiate Championships. The American boys on our squad had a lot at stake for they were trying to make the final tryouts for the Melbourne Olympics. Charlie Jenkins and Phil Reavis were to be successful and gain selection on the American team. As an Irishman I was under considerably less pressure. We have no tryouts in Ireland. An Irish Olympic Council sets standards for the various events, and if an athlete meets the required standard he is eligible for selection. For my own part I had already bettered the standards set for the half mile and the mile, 1:50 and 4:05.8 respectively. But I still did not know if I would be selected and was not to know officially for a long time yet.
At that time Irish sport was very complex at the organizational level. In our small country we had three different athletic bodies administering the sport of track and field. For various reasons, political and otherwise, they did not see eye to eye. As a result, the Irish Olympic Council, which is made up of representatives of the various Olympic sports such as boxing, fencing and weight lifting, did not have any representative of track and field on its board. This amounted to our athletics team being selected by persons with no knowledge of or connection with the sport. This misfortunate system almost led to my not going to Melbourne.
But, for now, back to Compton. After my defeats by John Landy I was paradoxically not nearly as anxious about my miling and my desire to beat four minutes. I was in a relaxed frame of mind, and I was not thinking specifically of trying to break through the magic barrier. There was a classy field lined up for the Compton Mile. World 1,500-meter record holder Gunnar Nielsen of Denmark headed the list. The American challenge included Fred Dwyer, formerly of Villanova, and Bobby Seaman, a rising UCLA star. Before the race I was more concerned with getting a pair of spikes to run in, for my old ones were worn out, than in preparing myself for the race. I got a pair on credit about 15 minutes before the off from a shoe salesman at the meet. He made me pay up afterward, too, my last $10 in fact, in spite of the exciting result of the race. He obviously didn't appreciate the value of good public relations.
As usual, by now, there was a rabbit in the Compton Mile to ensure a fast pace. Danny Schweikart, a no more than average miler, did the early running. I lay back in the field but at no time lost contact with the leaders. Jumbo determined the "contact point" as anywhere within 10 yards of the pacesetter. I was always supposed to keep within this range. However, I must have given Jumbo many a start, for I seldom if ever could keep up early on in a race. I often felt more tired during the second lap than at any other stage, and I had this terrible tendency to dawdle along behind—completely out of touch. But in Compton I was not taking any chances and for once followed Jumbo's orders. The early part of the race, up to the three-quarter mark, was unexciting. The lead interchanged a few times between Nielsen, Dwyer and Seaman. I did not hear the three-quarter time called out, so I had no idea how fast we were going or, more important, that we were on schedule for afour-minute mile.
January 29, 1968
The final lap was a scorcher. Nielsen was being chased by Dwyer and Seaman. About 200 yards from home I began to move up. I slipped past the two Americans and into an attacking position about one yard behind the big Dane. I was only conscious that I was racing another man at this point, and I had absolutely no idea of how fast we were going. About 100 yards from the finish I moved up on Nielsen's shoulder. He was still very strong and held me off. But I was determined to pass him, for I was still smarting from the two Landy defeats. Forty yards from the tape I edged in front. I stayed there, barely holding off Nielsen's challenge. Immediately I finished I was swarmed on by my teammates and some of the spectators. I knew I had achieved something in beating Nielsen, but I could not quite understand all this excitement. In the jumble of voices around me I thought I heard someone say I had broken the barrier. Just then over the public-address system came the voice of theannouncer. There was a silence, startling in its suddenness, as he called the result of the mile and the time: 3 minutes 59 seconds.
I had made it, and Nielsen also with 3:59.1. I could hardly believe my ears. I was amazed, dumfounded. I knew I would break four minutes someday but not so soon. But, suddenly, I was the seventh four-minute miler in history. I had joined Roger Bannister, John Landy, Laszlo Tabori, Chris Chataway, Brian Hewson and Jim Bailey in the most exclusive club in the world. And, with Tabori, I was the fourth fastest miler of all time. I was full of gratitude in my heart to everyone who had helped me achieve this, and especially to Jumbo Elliott for his unceasing confidence in me.
Nielsen and I, in breaking the barrier, ended a lot of drivel at that time about the psychological aspects of four-minute miling. There was no resolution here on either side, no great tactical planning for our achievement. Rather, two men pitted against each other had run as fast as they could in an effort to defeat the other and in the process had run four minutes. Perhaps Bannister had to fight a psychological barrier to become the first to crash through, but from now on four-minute miles would become a matter of physical condition and the necessary effort required. The die had been cast.
To add to my joy, two weeks later in Berkeley, Calif. I won the NCAA 1,500-meter championship, beating Landy's recent conqueror, Jim Bailey of Oregon, in the process. So I was able to set off on the journey home to Ireland for my summer vacation happy in the knowledge that I had run a four-minute mile and had beaten Bailey. I was becoming optimistic about my chances in Melbourne—if I ever got there. But on arrival home in Dublin I discovered the members of the Irish Olympic Council had not yet made up their minds about sending me to the Olympics. Under tremendous pressure from the press and athletic officials the council met again. But they were not going to be rushed. The outcome of their meeting was a bald statement to the effect that Ireland would be represented in Melbourne if funds were available. They mentioned certain sports, athletics included, but did not nominate any one athlete. This was most upsetting at the time and the strain of not knowing officially if Iwould be traveling to the Games had an adverse effect on my training. I began to wonder seriously what I would have to do to earn selection.
To add to my worries I was seriously spiked in the heel during an 800-meter race in Paris in early July. For some strange reason or other the organizers had about 20 athletes entered in the race, and they elected to start us on a turn. There was a mad stampede at the start. An Iranian athlete running his first international race ever chose, in his excitement, to try to run over me rather than around me. In the process he nearly cut my right heel off. I was taken to the hospital with two deep gashes in the heel, but the doctors said they would mend in about a month. I was greatly relieved. My relief nearly turned to horror when I saw a nurse preparing the largest injection I have ever seen in my life. I knew it was for me, but I didn't expect her to want to put it directly into my back above the shoulder blade. I tried to reason with her in my best school French, suggesting an alternative area with a little more flesh in preponderance. However, she kept insisting id andpointing to my back, so I had to succumb. I really was beginning to hate nurses. But it's an ill wind that does not blow somebody good, for after leaving the hospital, in the company of Louis Vandendries, a Belgian resident in Dublin and secretary of the Irish Amateur Athletic Union, I hobbled around the famous night spots of Paris. Knowing I was out of training for at least a month, I had a great night smoking cigars and sampling the vin. I had started out the evening hobbling, but I had developed a distinct roll by the time I got back to our hotel.
A month later I was back in training. After six days I ran my first race, a moderate 4:06.4 mile at London's famous White City. I then attempted the ridiculous and took on Brian Hewson of Britain, another four-minute miler, before a partisan home crowd in Dublin two days later. The result was disastrous. I finished 75 yards behind him in 4:20, the slowest mile I ever ran in my life. I learned my lesson and decided no more racing for the remainder of the summer, for obviously my layoff and injury had affected me more than I thought. I continued to do light training, and on my return to Villanova in September, two months before the Games opened, I was moderately fit. Jumbo Elliott appreciated that my poor miles in Dublin were a result of the injury in Paris. He still believed that even with two months' training we could win the 1,500 meters in Melbourne. At this stage, believe it or not, I still did not know if I was going to be selected for the Irish team. The Irish OlympicCouncil had not issued any further statement since June and to date had not selected a team. This was utterly ridiculous. It meant that the aspiring Olympic hopefuls, including myself, were training in the hope and belief we would be selected, but nothing more. It was a tremendous worry. I mention this to highlight the different approaches of the small country and a track power like the U.S. Whereas Ireland's team was still unannounced, the U.S. team had been selected at the final Olympic tryouts the previous June, and the team would gather shortly on the West Coast for collective training prior to going down to Australia well before the Games would open. I would arrive in Australia, as it turned out, only three days before the opening ceremonies—a very brief period in which to become acclimatized.
At Villanova that fall I trained as I had never done before, while at the same time carrying a full schedule of lectures. It meant I had to live the life of a recluse, for my training program called for two workouts a day. There was no time for dates or any sort of social life. Even movies were out. It was train, train, train, with eating, studying and sleeping fitting into the daily pattern in that order. There was one good side effect. In view of my heavy training program I was put on the training table for all meals with the football squad. The big 200-pound-plus linemen could hardly believe that such a skinny little Irishman could put so much away at table. I took quite a ribbing, all of it good humored—not that it would have made much difference, for I was not inclined to engage in fisticuffs with any of those ballplayers, even the littlest of them.
Finally, in October, I learned from a newspaper report that I had been named to the Irish team for Melbourne. I did not get any official communication, letter or otherwise, from the council until the day before I left New York on the first leg of the long trip down under. But my mind was eased. I knew I was now going to the Games, and I was even more determined than ever to win. My workouts under Coach Elliott's ever watchful eyes were progressing most satisfactorily. By the end of October I was performing better in training than ever before. I had the assistance and encouragement of all my teammates during my training sessions. Johnny Kopil and Alex Breckenridge, no mean milers themselves, were particularly helpful. In my more strenuous workouts they would each run an alternate lap with me, pushing me to the limit of my endurance. All the time Jumbo was drumming into my brain his particular philosophy on running to win. "There is only one place to finish," hewould say, "first. The rest are nobodies. It is not sufficient to run well, better than you have ever run before, Ron, and perhaps take a place. If you want the glory, if you want to go down in history, you must win."
I knew Jumbo believed in me. This, above all, gave me great confidence. His attitude regarding winning really sunk home. He had me worked up to such a pitch that nothing else was going to satisfy me. I wanted to win and I would win, for him, my country and myself. Jumbo, my teammates and my father were probably the only ones who gave me more than a snowball's chance in hell. The press had written me off because of my poor showing in Dublin the previous August. In their opinion Landy was the favorite, with the other members of the four-minute club, Bailey, Hewson, Tabori and Nielsen, tipped to fill the minor placings. Rozsavolgyi, the Hungarian who was now the 1,500-meter world-record holder, was also listed among the favorites. But I was not concerned. I knew I was fitter than I had ever been before in my life—far fitter than when I had run my own four-minute effort the previous June. What did it matter what the press and the experts thought? I was in my most positive frameof mind ever as a result of Jumbo's buildup. Nothing had been neglected. My body and mind were conditioned as never before—to strain to breaking point, if necessary, for victory.
Still without official communication from the Irish Olympic Council, I learned from the grapevine in early November what the travel arrangements for the Irish party to Australia were. I was to link up with the team in New York and travel on from there with them. They were due in New York from Dublin on the second Sunday in November. On Saturday morning I still had heard nothing from the Irish Olympic Council. My travel tickets had not yet arrived, though I knew they would. Nothing was going to prevent me from going to Australia now. The Villanova post office closed at noon on Saturday, but I arranged with the postmaster to let me come back to check again in midafternoon. When I did, a special-delivery letter awaited me. It was from the secretary of the Irish Olympic Council and he enclosed the air tickets, full instructions regarding the trip and sundry identity cards and documents. Better late than never, I thought, but certainly not in the best interest of an athletetrying to prepare for competition.
The next day I traveled to New York and checked in for my flight to San Francisco, where the Irish team would train for a few days before continuing on to Australia. The flight I was to take had originated in Shannon, and the Irish team was on board. I met my teammates for the first time in the tourist-class cabin of that old Super Constellation. They were a grand bunch of lads, with one girl, Maeve Kyle, included. Altogether, our Irish' Olympians numbered 12—one yachtsman, three athletes, seven boxers and a wrestler. Yet among us we were to bring home to Ireland one gold, one silver and three bronze medals, on average the best performances of any country in the Games. We stopped off in San Francisco and worked out in Berkeley at the University of California. Brutus Hamilton, the university's track coach and one of the finest gentlemen I have ever met, helped me with my workouts. At the end of the week, following my final session under his care, he told me there was justone other thing we had to do. He instructed me to go down the track about 20 yards from the finishing line. He then pulled out a piece of finishing tape from his pocket, attached it to the post, stretched it out over the track and said, "Come on, run through it." I obeyed and amid our laughter Mr. Hamilton explained that he believed an athlete should practice everything, even breaking the tape. I was then fully prepared for Melbourne.
We left San Francisco on November 17, only five days before the Games were to open, and headed down for Melbourne via Honolulu, Fiji and Sydney. In the early evening of November 19 we arrived in the Olympic city to a tumultuous welcome from a myriad of Irish-Australian societies, with Irish pipers and colleens, dressed in national costume, on hand for the occasion. The Irish down under were thrilled to see their old country represented in the Games and extended to us the heartiest of good luck and best wishes. We arrived at the Olympic Village and settled in immediately, tired and needing to rest up after our long journey. But before going to bed we raised an Irish flag outside our quarters. As it so happened, it was the largest flag put up—the other nations had standard-sized ones—and before we knew it every newspaperman in the village was outside photographing it. It caused a sensation. Next morning matters were put right—or wrong, depending on which way you look atit—when the camp commandant came along with the proper-sized flag, took our big one down and went through a formal ceremony of unfurling the new flag.
My first days in the village were filled with meeting members of other nations' teams with whom I was acquainted. It was great seeing my teammates from Villanova, Charlie Jenkins and Phil Reavis, both competing, of course, for the U.S. Charlie had a store of information on my opponents; he had done some research for me. He told me Landy was having trouble with his legs and Bailey trouble with his nose and that the one-two threat of the Australians was considered weakened. Rozsavolgyi and Tabori of Hungary and the British team of Hewson, Wood and Boyd were all thought highly of by the experts.
The tension in the village itself was electric. All about me were lean, strained faces with eyes sunk deep from the rigor of long hours of training. Everywhere there was talk of who would win this and that, all of which, if you listened to it, would only make you twice as nervous and tense. For the most part I kept to myself and my Irish teammates. Shortly after my arrival in the village I met the three Britons, Hewson, Wood and Boyd. Despite our centuries of differences we Irish and British were friendly toward one another. They were all talk about who was going to win the 1,500 meters and mentioned everyone's name, practically. I gathered they were in a state of high tension and when they asked me who I thought would win I announced blandly, "Myself." I might as well have insulted the Queen, it had such an effect on them. One of them actually screamed. The last thing they wanted to hear apparently was one of their competitors saying he was going to win.Admittedly, I said it more out of bravado than in belief I could do it. But in cold-war terms the Irish had put one over on the British again.
On November 22 the opening ceremony of the XVI Olympiad took place. Sixty-seven nations' contingents of athletes paraded into Olympic Stadium before a capacity crowd exceeding 100,000. Even if one were never to win an Olympic medal, the memory of the opening ceremony would last a lifetime in one's mind, I believe. Somehow every athlete I have spoken to on the subject has expressed the same sentiment. There is something very special, historic and significant in being sent by your country to an Olympic Games, and this realization comes to you as you participate in the opening ceremony before the eyes of the world. The taking of the Olympic oath, the fanfares of trumpets, the choirs, the lighting of the Olympic flame, the releasing of the doves of peace carrying their message that the Games are on—all combine to make a great spectacle and an undying impression on the mind of the participants. I was proud of my heritage and my native land as I stood erect in the OlympicStadium, a privileged member of the Irish team.
I was not due to run until a week later in the preliminary heats of the 1,500 meters. I did not go to the track and field events for more than an hour each day. I found the tension too great. I had the thrill of seeing Charlie Jenkins win the 400-meter crown and believe I could have won the high jump with my exultant leap as he breasted the tape. The days flew by and I was preparing myself mentally for the task ahead. I reasoned I was as fit and strong as anyone in the race. I was faster than most over a half mile or quarter and a four-minute miler to boot. I believed I had it in me to win. I was almost alone in this opinion, except for my coach, my family and my closest friends. No one looked for the reason for my defeats; the fact that I was spiked in Paris and out of training for three weeks was completely ignored. In retrospect, it is probably a good thing not to be favored.
The heats of the 1,500 meters were held on Thursday, but qualifying for the final turned out to be a mere formality. The first four in each of the three heats went on to the final on Saturday. I strolled home in third place in my heat comfortably behind Merv Lincoln of Australia and Ken Wood of Great Britain, with the much favored Tabori of Hungary in the fourth spot. The other qualifiers were Landy, Nielsen, Hewson, Ian Boyd, Klaus Richtzenhain, Neville Scott, Murray Halberg and Stanislav Jungwirth. Rozsavolgyi, the world record holder, was eliminated along with Joseph Barthel, the defending Olympic champion; Dan Waern, the greatest Swedish runner since Gunder H√§gg; the Germans, G√ºnther Dohrow and Siegfried Herrmann; and all three American contestants. Jim Bailey of Australia scratched from his heat.
The final was wide open despite Landy's position as favorite. There were four other four-minute milers in the field beside myself—Landy, Hewson, Tabori and Nielsen—and I was younger than any of them. Halberg and Scott of New Zealand were comparatively inexperienced. Lincoln of Australia had probably run too fast in winning his heat. Richtzenhain of Germany and Jungwirth of Czechoslovakia were unknown quantities. Of the two other Britons in the race, Wood was considered a dark horse, but Boyd hardly seemed up to the class of the race.
Friday was spent resting and relaxing as far as possible under the trying circumstances. Every moment my mind was turning over analyzing my opponents. It was virtually impossible to decide on the form of the field. Finally I settled to my own satisfaction that Landy was still my greatest threat, with Hewson the next most likely to succeed in beating me to my life's ambition. I also considered the possibility of an outsider of the inspired sort who suddenly appears in Olympic finals and performs way above himself, running off with the laurels. It was this sort of inspiration I was hoping for myself.
The day I had lived for dawned bright and warm. It was difficult to remain calm but I tried as best I could, for I knew every moment of anxiety used up valuable energy. I resigned myself quietly to the will of God and prayed not so much for victory but the grace to run up to my capabilities. When I arrived at Olympic Stadium I immediately went to the warm-up area for the "roll call" and to prepare for my race. One of the first people I met was Charlie Jenkins and in spite of the seriousness of the occasion for me he could not restrain himself from bursting into laughter when he saw the anxiety written all over my face. I'll always remember what he said to me: "Man, I know what you're going through. I'm sure glad my ordeal is over." He could well laugh with his Olympic gold medal already secured and with the possibility of another before him in the 1,600-meter relay final later in the day.
Before I fully realized it, the race was called and we were marched single file through a dark tunnel out into the sudden glaring brightness of the Olympic oval before 100,000 partisan fans ready to cheer on their hero, John Landy. Yet, as we moved across the stadium toward the starting area, John came over to me and wished me good luck. It was typical of this great sportsman.
It is funny how even in life's most serious moments one cannot help being amused by some little detail: the three British athletes were moving around as if they were glued together, all ashen-faced and looking as if they were going to the gallows rather than the starting line. I remember reprimanding myself and thinking I would not be so amused if one of these Englishmen were ahead of me at the finish.
There was one false start; we were lined up again; the pistol fired and the Olympic 1,500-meter final was on. In a crowded field of 12 one had to avoid trouble and I did this by running at the back of the pack. After 400 meters in 58.9, Halberg was leading, with Hewson nicely placed and a bunched field right behind. Lincoln took the lead at the 800-meter mark in 2:00.3, with his compatriot Landy last and myself just in front of him. At the bell the entire field was fantastically gathered within a mere six yards. Lincoln, Hewson and Richtzenhain was the order of the leaders. I was back in 10th place but I was very much in touch with the leaders, for the pace at this stage of the race was not troubling me. I knew I could not afford to allow anyone to break into a lead at this vital stage of the race so I moved out wide to allow myself a clear run about 350 yards from the finish. As we went down the backstretch for the last time Hewson was forging away in the lead. SuddenlyLandy sprinted and I reacted immediately, slipping into his wake and following him as we passed the struggling figures of the other competitors. I knew if I were to win I would have to make one and only one decisive move. I restrained myself as long as possible, and about 150 yards from the finish I opened up with everything I had. Within 10 yards I was in the lead and going away from the field. I knew nobody was going to pass me, for my legs were pumping like pistons, tired but not going to give in to anybody. My heart swelled with joy as I approached the tape 10 feet clear of the rest of the field, and as I burst through I threw my arms wide in exultation. I could hardly believe I had won. My eyes swelled with tears, and I dropped to my knees in a prayer of thanksgiving. John Landy, who finished third, came over to me, helped me to my feet and warmly congratulated me. The Australian crowd was showing its sportsmanship by generously applauding me.
It was the happiest day of my life. I had set out to win the Olympic 1,500-meter crown, and with the help of Jumbo Elliott I had achieved my goal. The rest of my athletic career would always be a sort of anticlimax. I was plagued by injuries later on and I never again had the same driving ambition. But on that day in Melbourne I was grateful to so many people—my parents, my early coaches in Ireland, Jumbo and John Landy—who had inspired me with confidence and example.
From now on I was an Olympic champion. To this very day the aftereffects linger on. Whether it is New York, London, Paris or Dublin, I enjoy the friendship and the welcome of athletes and officials alike. I have long since retired from active participation but I find that every sports fraternity I encounter renders me respect because I am an Olympic champion. It is as if you are a living part of history. One can break world records, as I did in my time, and they are forgotten. But when you win an Olympic title you live on as part of the sport after you retire from active competition. There are responsibilities to live up to also. I am always conscious of the need to give youth good example by word and action. I believe as an Olympic champion I should keep in good physical trim—I don't want to hear someone remark about me one day, "See that fat slob over there? He won the Olympics way back in 1956." And the answer, "No, not him. You're kidding me."
A great subject of debate in Ireland even to this day is, "Would Delany have won the Olympics if he had not gone to Villanova?" I think I can answer that question once and for all. There is no doubt in my mind that I would not have won an Olympic title if I had remained in Ireland. I benefited and developed under the expert tuition of Jumbo Elliott. I learned tactical sense from my many skirmishes on the board tracks. And above all I competed against the best competition available week after week, year after year, throughout the U.S., whether it was a native son like Tom Courtney or a foreign import like John Landy.
I am eternally grateful that I was afforded the opportunity of living in America and attending Villanova University. My education has helped me to achieve a good standard of living in my own country, and my athletic experiences are enough to fill a lifetime with memories. I have more than reaped a rich harvest for the effort I have put into track and field!