Peter O’Connor, the most famous Waterford athlete of his generation, stands alone not only for his world long jump records, but for his actions beyond the sand pit at the 1906 ‘Intercalated Games’ in Athens.
And his patriotic defiance is superbly recalled in a wonderful new book titled ‘Gold, Silver and Green’, written and researched by Kevin McCarthy and published by Cork University Press.
The 1906 Games were held to mark the 10th anniversary of the modern Olympic revival, and to partly compensate angered Athenians who believed the Games should have held in the Greek capital for time immemorial.
Much to O’Connor’s annoyance (and fellow Irishmen Con Leahy and John Daly), once in Athens, he discovered that he had been officially entered as a member of the Great Britain team.
Despite writing to both the Olympic Committee and Prince George of Greece, requesting that all three be entered as representatives of Ireland, O’Connor’s appeals fell on deaf ears.
As McCarthy recalls in his superbly researched book, The Waterford News mustered little sympathy for the long jumper’s plight.
“A rather unusual excitement was created by our own townsman, Peter O’Connor, and some more of the Irish representatives, who tried to insist that the wins registered by Ireland should be marked by the raising of the green flag as against the Union Jack,” the paper stated.
“However this may be in sentiment, the protest could by no means hold good, as O’Connor and his conferees were part and parcel of the English team.”
To represent “the blood-stained Empire” to quote the Gaelic American, was a bitter pill to swallow twice over, especially as funds raised in Ireland had made it possible for all three to attend the Games.
And the angst didn’t end there, with every element of the controversy brilliantly brought to life by McCarthy in a book which is the end product of six years of research (and how it shows).
In the long jump (which O’Connor would ultimately take silver in), there were to be two judges: one British, one American.
Bizarrely, the British judge, a Mr Perry, obviously found something better to do that day in Athens, leaving just Mr Matthew Halpin of the United States to adjudicate.
O’Connor was not alone in his post-competition thoughts when declaring that Halpin did all he could to prevent him winning gold that afternoon.
It will come as no surprise that the eventual winner that day was an American, Meyer Prinstein, who, ironically, was a member of the Irish American Athletic Club.
O’Connor, whose blood pressure must have been off the scale by now, felt he had been robbed of gold.
Once again, he took his complaint to Prince George, whose actions clearly demonstrated his grovelling attitude to ‘Uncle Sam’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. Surprise, surprise, O’Connor got nowhere.
Nothing if not stubborn, O’Connor was determined to make his point, and, with Leahy’s support, his moment of proud patriotic defiance was realised during the long jump medal ceremony.
Both he and Leahy dashed towards the pole just the Union Jack was to be raised, representing his second placed finish.
“When I climbed the pole about 20 feet in height and remained aloft for some time, waving my large flag (green, bearing a gold harp and the phrase ‘Erin Go Bragh’) and Con waving his from the ground underneath the pole, it caused a great sensation,” he wrote in 1951.
“It was only the section of the spectators in the seats near where the jump came off that fully appreciated our demonstration as Irishmen as objecting to the Union Jack being hoisted claiming my being second in the long jump as a win and a point gained by the British team.
“I had a very excitable temper and was simply furious over the English judges’ (sic) refusing to officiate as judges because of my letter to the Olympic committee, over the sarcastic remarks of Prince George and over the way I was robbed of victory.
“I was an accomplished gymnast in my youth and my active climbing of the post excited the spectators who had observed my violent protest to Halpin being sole judge and declaring my best jumps foul.”
And while O’Connor took gold in the hop, step and jump, history shall recall him not only as a great athlete, but as the man who defied an Empire before a packed Olympic Stadium.
McCarthy’s book is such a magnificent accomplishment that it, and the great deeds of the great Olympians who put Carrick-on-Suir and Ballyneale on the sporting map, deserve our attention again next week.
‘Gold, Silver and Green: The Irish Olympic Journey 1896-1924’ is published by Cork University Press