FIFTY years ago, on the day after Dana had won the hearts of a nation when winning the Eurovision with her ‘All Kinds of Everything’, there was another historic Irish victory, this time achieved on the fields of Vichy in France.
There, at the International Cross-Country Championship, Corkman John Hartnett became the first Irish athlete since Tim Smythe 39 years before to win a major international title over the country.
While Smythe’s finest hour came at Baldoyle Racecourse as a senior, Hartnett fulfilled the tremendous promise he had shown the year before in Scotland where he had finished fourth junior when taking gold in the same grade.
John Hartnett hailed from Gurteen near Ballyhooly. At the age of 14, he joined Kildinan AC and had his first success at U16 level when winning the Cork cross-country championship at Bandon. When Kildinan disbanded, he joined the nearby Grange club with whom he won the Cork and Munster U18 titles in 1968, along with finishing fourth at the Irish championship at Mallow Racecourse.
The following year of 1969 two Irish championships at both junior and intermediate level came his way, culminating in the brilliant fourth-place at Clydebank where he led the Irish team to the silver medals in a race won by future world record holder Dave Bedford.
But that winter - after an impressive start to the season in November which saw him winning the opening race of the Cork senior league - he was plagued with injuries. With the All-Ireland junior championship fixed for Fermoy in February, the pressure on Hartnett to deliver before his home crowd was huge.
The hot favourite was Dan Murphy from Tralee who had won five of his six previous races, the only defeat coming in the San Sebastian international, along with Eddie Leddy from Leitrim and 16-year-old London exile Bill Curtin. However, Hartnett certainly answered his critics when leaving the field of 140 in his wake over the undulating four mile course.
Dublin’s Tom Gregan set a cracking pace with Hartnett and Leddy right on his shoulder and the trio were joined after a mile by Murphy who had suffered a fall early on. When Hartnett applied the pressure, only Leddy could respond and then the Grange man opened up a significant gap which saw him home in a time of 21:04, 20 seconds to the good over Leddy with Murphy third another 15 seconds in arrears.
The 1970 International Cross-Country Championships were one of the last before the event was given official IAAF World Championship status in 1973. Winner of the senior race at Vichy was England’s Mike Tagg who defeated three-time champion Gaston Roelants from Belgium with another English runner, Trevor Wright in third. Best of the Irish was Sean O’Sullivan in 35th, one place ahead of Pat Gilsenan.
Hartnett’s main opposition in the junior race came from Jack Lane of England but the Ballyhooly man was well up to the task and to the delight of the small Irish attendance crossed the line with eight seconds to spare over Lane with Eric De Beck of Belgium – who would win the senior race in 1974 – well back in third.
This time, the Irish team were well out of the medals as Murphy in 20th and Leddy in 23rd combined with Hartnett to total 44 points for fifth, 10 behind Italy who took bronze.
Following that famous victory of 1970, Hartnett gained an athletics scholarship to Villanova University. Two years later, he established an Irish 5,000m record of 13:43.0 and the same year competed for Ireland at the Munich Olympics.
Under the guidance of legendary Villanova coach Jumbo Elliott, Hartnett went on to break Ronnie Delany’s Irish mile record with a time of 3:54.7 in 1973 and the following year, on a memorable night at the Cork City Sports on the old Mardyke grass track, ran the mile in 3:56.3.
On the indoor circuit in 1974, he was in brilliant form. On a Saturday night in January at the Knights of Columbus Games in New York he ran the fifth fastest time on record for two miles when covering the 22 indoor laps in 8:26.6.
He finished almost eight seconds ahead of Grant McLaren from Canada (8:34.4) with another Irishman, Neil Cusack, third in 8:37.2. Cusack would go on three months later to win the Boston Marathon in an Irish record of 2:13:39.
Hartnett’s dominance on the boards of North America continued the following month at the Maple Leaf Indoor Games in Toronto where, before a packed attendance of over 16,000 fans, he ran the first sub-four-minute indoor mile witnessed in Canada.
His 3:59.6 was achieved ahead of a glittering field which included the current and future Olympic 1500m champions, Pekka Vasala of Finland and John Walker from New Zealand.
He finished off the season by winning the NCAA indoor two-mile championship in a meet record of 8:33.6 and added the IC4A title over the same distance in a similar time of 8:33.2.