Sunday 14 February 2010

Rome Olympics - 50 years on

When I was a youngster I was intrigued to hear my Dad say one evening that he was going to an event for members of an organisation called Olympians Ireland. As was my way, I had to know more. What I found out fascinated me. My Dad was in a very exclusive club! He could claim membership of a body who's sole entry criteria was that you'd been to the Olympic Games as part of an Irish team, either as a competitor or as an official. Of course, we'd heard many times before all about how he'd managed the Irish cycling team in Rome in 1960 but that evening was when the penny dropped with me just what that meant.

2010 marks 50 years since he made that trip so it seems to me as good a time as any to look back on a unique experience. I want to thank my Dad for sharing his story with me and also for supplying the team photo and memorabilia included here.

Olympic passport from the 1960 Games

Nowadays participation in the Olympic Games means qualification standards, corporate sponsorship deals, wall to wall TV coverage, professional athletes, Sports Council grants, Lottery funding, full time coaches and world class training facilities. Compared to that Dads account of what it took to get a team to Rome really does bring home just how true is the saying "the past is a foreign country."

Many Irish sports, and cycling in particular, inhabited a very divided political landscape in the 1950's. As a result the Olympic Council of Ireland had not agreed to any cycling participation at the two previous Olympic Games, in Helsinki (1950) and Melbourne (1956). An unauthorised attempt had been made by the National Cycling Association (NCA) to gate crash the Olympic road race in Melbourne. The NCA, which claimed jurisdiction over cycling in all 32 counties, were not recognised by the Unione Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and so it’s riders could not compete in UCI recognised events, including the Olympic Games. Nevertheless the NCA "selected" a team of three riders with the intention of riding the race.

Paudie Fitzgerald and Tom Flanagan travelled from Ireland and the US respectively and hooked up with Australian based Tom Gerrard. A group calling itself the League for an Undivided Ireland organised things for them locally and got them to the start line. However, the Australian police were called in to prevent them starting the race when they were spotted by a journalist who attempted to interview them. Their action delayed the start of the race, won by the great Ercole Baldini of Italy, but generated a lot of publicity.
By the close of the 50's, CRE (Cumann Rothuideachta na hEireann), the UCI recognised controlling body for the Republic of Ireland, and the NICF (Northern Ireland Cycling Federation), the recognised body for Northern Ireland, had come to an agreement which was acceptable to the UCI. There was to be a joint CRE/NICF committee formed to select teams to represent Ireland internationally and also to run All-Ireland track, time trial and road Championships. The NCA refused to accept this arrangement and so remained unrecognised internationally. In 1959, largely on the initiative of CRE, the Joint Committee approached the Olympic Council which agreed to include both track and road cyclists on the Irish team for the 27th Olympiade in Rome in 1960.

Sean Fox was then a 24 year old member of Eagle CRC in Dublin. He was also National Registrar of CRE and served on the CRE/NICF Joint Committee. He was very enthusiastic for cyclists to compete at the Olympics and so was delighted when the go-ahead was given.

But then reality bit. The Olympic Council had estimated the cost per team member, including airfare to Rome and five nights at the Olympic Village, at £65.0.0, a very considerable sum at that time. Half would be covered by the OCI but the rest had to be found by the cycling bodies.

At that time cycling in Ireland was 100% amateur. Cash prizes weren't allowed, there was no grant funding and sponsorship was rare. Clubs fundraised any way they could. The club dance was a regular event. Since the federations were funded by club affiliations and rider licences, money at a national level was very tight.

As my father tells it, the NICF was lukewarm about Olympic participation. Riding under the Irish Tricolour and national anthem was a concern for some in the North. So the fundraising buck was passed back to CRE. (This turned out to be somewhat ironic when the team was selected as three out of five riders were NICF members). Being clearly the most enthusiastic for the Olympic adventure, Dad was “encouraged” to come up with an effective fundraising scheme and then to get on with bringing the money in.

In 1959 there was effectively no television in Ireland and the advent of the 24 hour sports channels was decades away. The Irish, as a sporting nation had to rely on the print media or radio for their sports coverage. However, oil and tyre companies like Shell, Castrol and Dunlop produced 16mm films of events such as the Monte Carlo Rally. Other sports films available at the time included the Berlin and Melbourne Olympics and the European Cup Finals.

Dad had attended capacity-crowd showings of films like these at venues such as the Mansion House in Dublin. He figured that if he could put together a selection of sporting films, and offer them in a Dublin city centre venue, it would attract a good audience. So he booked the St. Anthony’s Hall, Merchants Quay and ran his first sports film show. Joe Sherwood, a pipe-smoking Englishman, was a sports columnist with the Evening Press. Joe very generously offered to publicise the first film show in his daily column. The show was a great success and a near capacity crowd paid two shillings and sixpence each for admittance.

Encouraged by this success Dad dug up some more sports films which might appeal to the widest possible audience, and put on two more, equally successful, shows. This series generated the bulk of the money needed to fund a six person cycling contingent to travel to Rome and to stay in the Olympic Village for the bare five nights. There would be no money for training camps or acclimatisation but they were on their way!

A five rider team was selected. They were:

Road Race:

Anthony "Sonny" Cullen, Eagle CRC, Dublin.
Peter Crinnion, Bray Wheelers, Co. Wicklow.
Seamus Herron, Northern CC, Belfast

Track Sprint:

Martin McKay, Maryland Wheelers, Belfast

Track 1000m TT and Track Sprint:

Michael Horgan, Maryland Wheelers, Belfast

The team was to be managed by Dad, partly because he had been so much a part of getting the team approved and funded and partly because, as a CIE employee, he could travel overland to Rome for free.

From left: Martin McKay (Maryland Whs) , Peter Crinnion (Bray Whs), Sonny Cullen (Eagle CRC),  Sean Fox (Eagle CRC), Seamus Herron (Northern CC) , Mick Horgan (Maryland Whs)    

When it came time to head to Rome, Peter Crinnion arranged to stay overnight in Dublin with Sonny Cullen so that they could get to the airport for their early morning flight. In semi-darkness, and with bags on their backs they set off on their competition bikes to ride to the airport. Near Whitehall Garda Station a young Garda stepped out in front of them and demanded to know where they were going at that hour of the morning, where their lights were and what was in those bags on their backs. You can imagine his surprise, and scepticism, when they told him “We’re off to ride at the Olympics” or words to that effect. They must have been convincing because he let them head on even though riding a bike without lights was considered a serious offence at that time.

The team flew to Rome but due to a delay in Dublin a planned stopover was shortened. Unfortunately too short for their bikes to make it onto the Rome plane. After an anxious wait the bikes turned up the next day and the team were able to settle in and enjoy the Olympic Village. The official managers report, submitted to the IOC after the Games, describes the Village as "superb". The team shared a flat "sleeping three persons per room, each flat having it's own toilet and bathroom. Electric razors were supplied and outside each group of flats was fitted a television set. Meals were served in large dining rooms, nations being grouped together according to eating habits. Every type of food to which Irish athletes are normally accustomed were available"

Despite an offer from the British team to loan them some bikes, the delayed arrival of the bikes did mean the track riders had almost no practice time on the unfamiliar Olympic Velodrome.

According to the report: "The Olympic Velodrome, the most superb cycling track in the world, was a very different proposition to the normal Irish or British track on which our riders had previously ridden, having a smooth timber surface instead of the usual tarmac or concrete with steep banking and very short straights. In fact so well banked was the track that the straights were almost non-existant. Track tactics normal for Ireland were rendered ineffective....In addition the tubulars supplied to the trackmen, the lightest used on irish tracks, proved to be too heavy for the Olympic track on which competitors used "Super Silk" tubulars."

As it turned out Horgan and McKay first rode the track only twenty minutes before racing started.

The first competition up was the Sprint:

"Heat 5 saw McKay meet former World Champion, Gasparella (Italy) and Errandonea (Spain). The Italian proved the stronger over the final 200m and McKay, easing up, was passed by the Spaniard to be placed 3rd. Time for the heat was a fast 11.7 secs. Horgan met Vasiliev (Russia) and Tortella (Spain) in Heat 10. In a very close finish he was placed 3rd, the Russian winning in with another fast 200m of 11.8 secs.

In Heat 2 of the Repechages McKay met Ruiz (Mexico). He proved to be a superior tactician to the Mexican and , riding extremely well, jumped into the lead entering the last banking. This should have been sufficient to win but, showing the glaring lack of mastery of the track, allowed the other rider to come by entering the straight and was beaten by a tyre length. Time was 12.4 secs. Horgan met another Russian - Bodniek - in repechage number 6 but was convincingly beaten when the Russian caught him napping with a half a lap to go, jumped and won by lengths in a time of 11.7 secs. In all the races the Irish riders proved to be as strong as most of the opposition, but were handicapped by obvious lack of International class racing".


Flag of Italy.svg Sante Gaiardoni Italy (ITA) Flag of Belgium (civil).svg Leo Sterckx Belgium (BEL) Flag of Italy.svg Valentino Gasparella Italy (ITA)
The next event up was the 1000m TT in which Horgan was drawn at number 23 in the start list. However, just before the race Horgan had the unlikely bad luck to have not one but two rear tyres explode on him leaving him only a wheel with a heavy tyre used for riding around the Village. Even worse he then lined up on the start line only to have his front tyre blow out. He had to replace THAT wheel with McKays front wheel. The report concludes that the punctures "resulted from either the extreme heat whilst we waited causing the air to expand in the tubulars or through a mis-calculation when converting the metric measurements on the air pressure gauge of the pumps in the pits".

"In the meantime the starter decided to run off the last two riders, Scob of France and Gaiardoni (Italy). Gaiardoni rode superbly and smashed the Olympic record for the distance. His time of 1 min 7.27 secs sent the crowd wild with delight. He rode lap after lap of the track to the yells of the crowd, posed for photographs by television, movie and press cameramen, and was kissed and hugged by fellow Italian riders and officials. It took 25 mins to clear the track for further racing, and during all this time Horgan patiently waited on the line to ride. When he eventually started his effort lacked fire, and his time of 1 min 17.18 secs, although an improvement on his previous best at home, was only good enough to give him 2nd last place. I can safely say, however, that had he not suffered the series of incidents which would have demoralised the greatest rider he would surely have recorded a much faster time to finish probably in the middle of the field".

Sante Gaiardoni breaks the world and Olympic record to take gold in the 1000m TT

Flag of Italy.svg Sante Gaiardoni Italy (ITA)     Flag of Germany-1960-Olympics.svg Dieter Gieseler
Unified Team of Germany (EUA)     
Flag of the Soviet Union 1955.svg Rotislav Vargashkin
Soviet Union (URS)                 

Next up for the Irish squad was the 175.38 kilometer Road Race, to be run over 12 laps of the Grottarossa circuit.

The team had managed some training despite the unaccustomed heat of a Roman summer and the bikes had been checked over by a local shop. However the night before the race Sonny Cullen was struck by the same illness that had affected many athletes. He spent a sleepless night with severe stomach pains and headaches, but was given the all clear the following morning to start the race.

The race started with 142 riders from 42 countries and included some future stars like 1968 Tour De France winner Jan Janssen of Holland and the somewhat controversial 1963 World RR Champion Benoni Beheyt of Belgium.

All three Irish riders were comfortably in the bunch for the first three laps but by the end of the fourth Cullen had lost 3'26" and retired, obviously ill. At the end of the 5th lap Herron also retired with mechanical trouble. Despite the full bike checks the previous day a bolt had come loose on his chainring which prevented the cranks from turning, losing him 6'40" on the bunch by the end of the lap. Tellingly the report states: "when he dismounted the official breakdown jeep, on which there were spare machines to be used in the case of mechanical failures, had passed him with eyes apparently only on the Italian riders in the bunch".

Meanwhile, Peter Crinnion was still comfortably in the leading bunch, taking an active part in the chase after Dutch pair, Hugens and Van Kreuningen, who had built a two minute lead on the peleton by the end of lap 6.

"But on lap 10 he was involved in a pile-up of a half-dozen riders and crashed heavily into a ditch. He remounted and with a French rider chased the main group. They made contact just as the field commenced the tough climb on the course and, the effort to get back being too much, went off the back again and at the end of the 10th lap was 2 minutes down riding on his own. Realising that it was impossible to get to the leaders again during the vital last laps of the race he contented himself by taking his time with the sole object of finishing the course."

The report goes on to say he finished 12 minutes down on winner Kapatinov of the USSR in "45th place of the 50 finishers". This is at odds with the official IOC Games report which doesn't list him as one of the 76 finishers. It is unimaginable in this day and age that there would be confusion over the result of an Olympic event but of course modern timing technologies didn't exist back then.

Kapitonov, of the U.S.S.R., in a victorious sprint at the finishing line with the Italian, Trapé, close on his heels.

The report goes on to conclude optimistically:

"While the Road Race was run at an average speed of more than 25 m.p.h. the opinions of Herron and Crinnion suggested that, on account of the large field which provided plenty of shelter, the pace did not prove too killing. I feel that, had this pair had a trouble free ride, both would have finished in the lead group...Knowing the finishing power of Herron he would probably have sprinted into the top ten. As was expected before the start Crinnion was the stronger rider and his effort to regain the bunch following the crash was a top-class ride. Prior to the crash he had made a number of attempts, with Holmes of the British team, to escape from the bunch and join the leading Dutch pair."


Flag of the Soviet Union 1955.svg Viktor Kapitonov
Soviet Union (URS)                               
Flag of Italy.svg Livio Trapè
Italy (ITA)                                                 
Flag of Belgium (civil).svg Willy van den Berghen
Belgium (BEL)                                        

Once all of the cycling events were over Dad left the Village to head on for a holiday in Austria. Before he left he was able to do a favour for someone that amply illustrates the contrast between what were considered the last "friendly" Games and the security paranoia already underway around the next Games in London.

Track and Field Sprinter Maeve Kyle, from Ballymena, had a problem. Despite having coached her to Olympic level, her husband Sean had not been accredited as a team coach by the the AAU, Ireland’s athletics governing body. As a result he couldn't gain access to his wife as she trained and competed.

The wily Maeve had noticed that security at the Games was pretty lax. A mere flash of the Olympic passport was usually enough to get access to the Village and other facilities. She suggested to Dad that he should conveniently “forget” to take his passport with him. Her husband would “find" it and try to use it to get the access he needed. She underook to take the rap if the subterfuge was discovered.

Not long after the Games, at Santry track, Dad’s pals were gobsmacked when this rather glamourous red headed athlete threw her arms around him and, with a kiss, returned him his documentation. It seems her plan worked a treat and she had the full benefits of her husband’s coaching.

Of course, not everything was different back then. The Rome cycling events weren't immune to the now familiar doping problems although, of course, doping was not banned at that time. Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen collapsed during the 100km Team Time Trial. Even though the autopsy gave cause of death as a fractured skull caused when he succumbed to the heat, Jensen was found to have large amounts of amphetimines, Roniacol and phenylisopropylamine in his system. His death led to pressure on the Olympic movement to take doping seriously and was one of the drivers of the introduction of testing later in the decade.

Interestingly the report of the Irish team doctor, Dr Kevin O'Flanagan, mentions Jensens death in the context of his concern for the Irish riders. He wrote: "I was a bit worried about the Cycling Team, owing to the death of a Danish cyclist in the first week of the Games, but despite the weather and the heat-wave conditions, all recovered well".

The Rome Olympics were a big step forward for Irish cycling. The Games which had royalty (future King Constantine II of Greece and Queen Sofia of Spain both competed for Greece), superstars (Cassius Clay and Herb Elliot), the first black African champion (Abibe Bikila of Ethiopa in the marathon) and which were the first to be fully televised, were also the first chance Irish riders had had to ride a games since London in 1948. Whether that exposure to the highest level of competition contributed to raising standards at home is debatable, of course. Peter Crinnion went on to a continental professional career and road racing continued to thrive but track racing was in decline and would almost die out completely in the years following the Games.

Despite dads report finishing with the a suggestion that "a start be made NOW to a campaign to raise money to ensure that cycling is represented in the Irish party which we hope will travel to Tokyo in 1964" it would be another 8 years, in Mexico, before a road cycling team attended a Games. There has been a road team at every games since then, with the exception of Atlanta in 1996 where the sole Irish rider was Martin Earley in the mountain bike race. However, the green jersey didn't grace an Olympic velodrome for an astonishing 48 years when David O'Loughlin entered the mens pursuit at the Beijing games.

Copyright The Muse-ette. 
(B/W photos and map reproduced from official games report. Team Photo copyright Sean Fox.) 


  1. sonny cullen was my grandmothers uncle. if you have any other information on him can you forward it on to, thanks

  2. Foxy,
    Is there any way that I can get in touch with the author of this article? My wife's family has been trying to get in touch with Michael Horgan for years. If you can, Id love to get an email address or regular address that I could correspond through...
    Craig Deming
    Phoenix, AZ

  3. Hi Craig

    You can email me at

  4. Hello,
    My name is Martin J. McKay, son of Martin McKay of the Olympic team. I also have Mike Horgans contact info and can be reached at
    I wanted to ask if your dad (the team manager) had known of my fathers knee injury. He had been injured while playing football(soccer) when he broke a car tail light with his knee and had to have glass removed and was then put in a cast until 1 week before the olympic games. He was able to turn the pedals around the crank once after a day or two but had no time to train and would have certainly been a much stronger competitor if this hadn't happened. He passed in June 2007 just after his 70th bday and 2 weeks after saying "son, life is great!" It is nice to find mention of him and his team mates. Thank you!

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