THE Olympic Year of 1984 promised much for Irish athletics.
The previous August, Eamon Coghlan had won the 5000m at the inaugural World Championships with Regina Joyce seventh in the marathon.
At the ’84 World C-C, John Treacy showed he was getting back to his best when finishing a 13th.
The Los Angeles Olympic Marathon was being touted as the most eagerly awaited race ever at the distance. To qualify for this classic was the aim of Ireland’s leading exponents as the year made famous by George Orwell got underway.
A major coup for the organisers and sponsors of the third Cork City Marathon came when the Irish governing body BLE designated it the national championship, incorporating the Olympic trial.
With this added boost, entries showed a big increase to almost 1,500. “It will be the most competitive race of its kind to be held in Ireland for years,” declared BLE President Paddy MGovern in the race programme.
For the elite, BLE had set stiff times of 2:14 (men) and 2:35 (women) as Olympic qualifying standards. The race was seen as the big showdown between Cork holder Jerry Kiernan and three-time national champion Dick Hooper.
Kiernan had already won the national cross-country at Kilmacow in February while Hooper, as was his style, had concentrated solely on the 26.2 mile distance. Ever meticulous with his preparation, the Raheny-man even travelled down to Cork to train on the route.
The weather on this Easter Monday was unseasonably warm, with the date of April 23 being later than normal. The course was unchanged from the previous year and when the gun cracked on the South Mall, Kiernan immediately took the lead.
After the first mile he had only Donie Walsh for company, with daylight stretching between them and a group which included Hooper, Ray Treacy, Bulgarian Nemov Stanimar and Galway’s Jimmy Fallon.
Kiernan reached three miles in 14:46 with Walsh dropping back to the chasers. At five miles, reached in 24:36, Kiernan was 150 yards clear with the group now working together in an effort to close the gap.
Nearing the Regional Hospital, Hooper surged clear and started to eat into Kiernan’s lead. The gap was down to 11 seconds at 12 miles with Hooper occasionally checking his watch and the splits written on his arm. Coming into the city, Kiernan started to pull away again and was over a half-minute clear at 15 miles reached in 74:42.
Along with the warm sunshine, the runners also had a strong easterly breeze to contend with as they headed down the Marina. Coming up to 19 miles, Kiernan appeared to be in some sort of distress, almost coming to a halt. After passing 20 miles in 1:40:48, he was forced to stop on two occasions.
Although word of Kiernan’s plight had reached Hooper, there wasn’t much he could do about it. “I was getting reports back but I had hit the wall myself at 12 miles. It was a bad run for me,” he related afterwards.
With two miles left of this epic encounter, Kiernan’s lead was just 28 seconds and it looked like he was just about going to hang on. However, coming into the South Mall with the finish in sight, he had to stop again to ease the leg cramps.
With the large crowd urging him on and the thought of final release in sight, he crossed the line a relieved man, just nine seconds ahead of the equally gallant Hooper.
In the circumstances, the times of 2:14:30 and 2:14:39 were remarkable. “There must have been 50 times when I thought I was not going to finish,” admitted Kieran. “I had cramps everywhere.”
Almost unnoticed, Gerry Deegan had finished strongest of all to take third in 2:18:20.
Once again, the spectacle up front took from the women’s race where Emily Dowling was determined to make an attempt on the standard of 2:35. But the strong breeze coming up to 18 miles slowed her and after reaching 20 miles in 2:03, she realised she wasn’t going to achieve her aim and retired.
Her DCH team-mate Deirdre Nagle didn’t realise she was in the lead until nearing the South Mall and was therefore surprised to take her first marathon win in a time of 2:48:26, over a minute clear of Christine Kennedy from Galway.
In third, after attracting a lot of pre-race publicity as the local hope, 1983 winner Lucy O’Donoghue recorded a personal best of 2:56:06 after moving up from 12th at halfway.
As the remaining finishers struggled to cross the line in various states of exhaustion and exhilaration, they were unaware of the drama unfolding alongside them in the Imperial Hotel.
Because the size of the advertising logos on Kiernan’s and Deirdre Nagle’s vests transgressed the IAAF rules, the two winners were disqualified. The ironic fact was that both were wearing adidas apparel, the sponsor of the marathon.
“It’s not our ruling,” pointed out Eddie Spillane, PRO of BLE. “It is an IAAF rule and all athletes are aware of it. Before the race, officials approached individual athletes and told them they were wearing illegal vests.”
It also put the Cork County Board and its chairman Reg Hayes in a quandary as adidas sponsored the Board, along with most of the races in the county. The decision was also not lost on Michael O’Connell of adidas who called on BLE to clarify the position regarding sponsorship in writing.
But it wasn’t over yet.
At the prize presentation, Dick Hooper was declared the winner of the national championship. When presented with the winning trophy and medal, he turned and handed it to Kiernan and in a brief emotional speech said: “As much as it breaks my heart, I didn’t win this race and I now hand over the trophy to the real winner.”
The packed room broke into thunderous roars of applause and both Kiernan and Hooper were given standing ovations, much to the obvious embarrassment of the BLE officials.
There was a happy ending later when Kiernan and Hooper were both selected for the Olympics. Often much maligned for their selection policies, BLE for once played a trump card by awarding the third spot to John Treacy who went on to take the silver medal on that unforgettable August evening on the streets of Los Angeles.
Running the race of his life, Kiernan finished a magnificent ninth in what was the greatest marathon line-up in Olympic history.
His performance was understandably overshadowed by Treacy’s silver and the publicity he received paled in comparison to the front page news which dominated from that warm Easter Monday four months before.
1 Jerry Kiernan 2.14.30; 2 Dick Hooper 2.14.39; 3 Gerry Deegan 2.18.20; 4 Paddy Murphy 2.19.03; 5 Nemov Stanimar 2.19.25; 6 Martin Deane 2.19.53; 7 John Bolger 2.20.13; 8 Greg Hannon 2.21.29; 9 John Griffin 2.23.26; 10 Murt Coleman 2.23.57.