Well-deserved honour for Joe West, Cork’s Olympic marathoner

Well-deserved honour for Joe West, Cork’s Olympic marathoner
The plaque that Olympian Joe West received for winning the Irish 15-mile championship back in 1954. Picture: John Walshe

IN THESE times, those on their daily constitutional walk on Carrigaline’s Bothair Guidel road may not be aware of the story behind the man whose sculpture they pass bearing the simple inscription Joe West, Olympian 1952.

Almost six years ago, thanks to the Carrigaline Tidy Towns committee, the sculpture, designed by artist Peadar Drinan, was unveiled by Joe’s wife Peggy along with Alan Coleman, then Mayor of the County of Cork, and Finbarr O’Brien, President of Leevale AC.

Joe West, who passed away in 2000, was born on December 6, 1921. He began his running career with the local harrier club before graduating to Owenabue Athletic Club where he was a regular winner in cross-country, road and track races throughout the 1940s.

In 1947, Joe emigrated to England where he found work in Coventry as an engineering machinist. He joined the famous Coventry Godiva Harriers with whom he won several road races and also gained honours at regional and national level.

In 1952 he was invited back to Dublin to take part in the marathon trial for that year’s Olympic Games in Helsinki. Despite not having run further than 15 miles, he duly won the race and followed that up with an 11th place in the historic Polytechnic Marathon from Windsor to Chiswick, recording a time of 2:32.

At the Olympics in Helsinki, West gallantly completed the distance in a time of 2:56:22, finishing in 49th place overall. That was the race which was famously won by Emil Zátopek of Czechoslovakia who had already taken gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m, a feat that has never been equalled.

Joe also won three Cork County individual senior cross-country titles and represented Ireland in the 1953 International C-C in Paris. However, road running was his forte and in addition to his 1952 Irish marathon title he also won the national 15-mile road race twice, in Killarney (1954) and New Ross the following year. 

For the one and only time, in 1953 the road race was held with the Cork City Sports. It started at the Grand Parade Monument and then headed out Washington Street and the Western Road, out the Carrigrohane Straight before turning right onto the Lee Road, to finish at the Gaelic Grounds, a total of eight miles.

Compared to the numbers in road races nowadays, just 13 hardy runners toed the line. It was a handicap race, with most of that small field starting off two to two-and-a-half minutes ahead of the scratch man, Joe West, then of the Rising Sun club. The closest to him at the start was Johnny Harte from Carrigtwohill who had a one-minute handicap.

Joe West's wife Peggy with Alan Coleman, Mayor of Cork County, and Finbarr O'Brien, President of Leevale AC, at the unveiling in 2014. Picture: John Walshe
Joe West's wife Peggy with Alan Coleman, Mayor of Cork County, and Finbarr O'Brien, President of Leevale AC, at the unveiling in 2014. Picture: John Walshe

On that July evening the large attendance at the Mardyke were able to witness one of their own, an Olympian marathoner, come into the Gaelic Grounds as winner. West’s time was 45 minutes and 44 seconds and in second place was Ted Geary from Ballymore near Cobh.

“I’m pretty certain that Joe left an indelible impact on running in this area and I’ve no doubt he would have loved to be here in this era where hundreds of runners are out on the roads on a regular basis,” stated Finbarr O’Brien at the unveiling. Finbarr was a man who knew Joe West on a personal basis and said he was proud and privileged to be asked to unveil the sculpture.

“This honour by his own town is very well deserved and earned and it sets him on a pedestal to remind us all, especially the young athletes of today, of his fame and will hopefully inspire them to follow in his footsteps.”

Following that unveiling, a message was received from one of the greatest of British runners, Bill Adcocks from Coventry. Adcocks finished fifth in the 1968 Olympic marathon and also set a record — which lasted 35 years — for the classic Athens event held over the same course as the original marathon.

“Although I never knew Joe West as I started running in 1954 and joined Coventry Godiva in 1955, Joe, along with Paddy Mulvihill were the start of a good number of members who ran in the Olympic Games marathon over the years and so started a legacy of distance running in the club. What a nice touch for Joe to be celebrated with this plaque in his home town,” concluded the tribute.

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