01 November, 2017

An interview with Cyril Smyth

At the end of July I got a rather unusual comment to my post on "the flying steeplechaser', Giorgos Papavasileiou. Cyril Smyth, who, as it turned out, is a fellow scientist and athletics fan, was looking for the bio of the athletes who had participated at the Melbourne, 1956, Olympics. Papavasileiou was one of them and since I was writing about the great biography of Papavasileiou that my friend Costas Tsagkarakis had compiled, Smyth was naturally interested in the book. He was ready to face the difficulties of Greek and thus together with Costas we mailed him a copy. Exchange of emails ensued and I got the idea of having him talk about his personal experience in athletics, his magnum opus on the Melbourne Olympics and his contact with Ron Delany. I emailed a short and non-restrictive list of questions and Cyril was kind enough to provide answers and photos. You'll find below the unedited version of these answers.

BG Please give a short presentation of yourself

CS I was born in Dunoon, Scotland, on the Firth of Clyde. I was educated at Dunoon Grammar School, and then at the University of Glasgow where I graduated BSc in Microbiology and went on to get my PhD in Microbiology. I subsequently worked at Queen’s University of Belfast, the Karolinska Institute and the National Bacteriology Laboratory in Stockholm, New York University Medical Centre, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SUAS) in Uppsala, Sweden, where I became a Docent, before joining the Department of Microbiology at Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin, at the end of 1980. I was elected a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin in 1986 on the basis of my research output after independent review by assessors. I served as Head of the Department of Microbiology for two separate six-year terms and was the Senior Dean of Trinity College for the six years before I retired in 2008 as Professor and Fellow Emeritus. My research area was bacterial pathogenesis, i.e., how bacteria cause disease.

Cyril Smyth-Starter 
Photo courtesy of Joe Kinane, Greystones

BG And your involvement in athletics?

CS I participated in athletics when at school, but my sports were really badminton and then squash at university. I took up jogging as recreation with my Swedish colleagues twice a week when I worked at SUAS. When I joined Trinity College I was encouraged to train with a running group for the Dublin City Marathon in 1981. I finished just under three hours at my first attempt. In all I ran 23 marathons, mostly in Ireland, but also London, Stockholm, Glasgow, Plymouth, Belfast among others. I completed all but five marathons under 3 h 10 min, best 2 h 56 min 26 sec. I competed in track events and cross country at County and Provincial levels, as well as represented my county, Wicklow, in National and Masters Cross Country.
I joined Bray Runners in 1984 and became the club’s Hon. Treasurer (and still am). I subsequently became the Hon Treasurer of the Athletics Wicklow Co Board (and still am). I have served on the National Juvenile Athletics Committee as National Registrar and Finance Officer, during which time I built the first database of juvenile registrants. 
I became involved with the athletics club in Trinity College, Dublin University Harriers and Athletic Club, in the early 1980’s helping to run athletics events in College Park, Trinity College. I became a Vice-President and then was elected Hon. President in 1987, a position I still hold. I became involved in organising University Championships through the Irish Universities Athletic Association. I served as Hon President/Chairman twice. I was assistant Chef de Mission for the Irish team at the Universiade in Palma de Mallorca in 1999.
I took up starting at county level in the late 1980’s. I was encouraged to become a starter at the IUAA (university) championships in the early 1990’s. Since then I have acted as an Athletics Ireland starter for road race championships and relays, cross country championships and T&F championships at county, provincial and national levels, and for schools at provincial and national levels and at universities championships. I have acted in other capacities as required – starts co-ordinator, starts referee, marksman, track referee, event official – and continue to do so.

Cyril Smyth with Ron Delany
Photo courtesy of Joe Kinane, Greystones

BG Could give us some details on your 1956, Melbourne Olympics, Project?

CS The 1st December 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of Ronald Delany’s Olympic Gold medal in the 1,500 m, the blue riband event. His Olympic Gold medal remains Ireland’s only Gold medal in athletics since 1932. Ronnie Delany was born in Arklow in the south of Co. Wicklow, but the family moved to Dublin, where he went to school. He gained an athletics scholarship to Villanova University in Philadelphia. At that time in Irish athletics, College Park in Trinity College was a major venue for championship athletics and international meetings. Ronnie graced the grass track in College Park, Trinity College, on numerous occasions. He was initially an 880 yds (½-mile) and 800 m runner. He set two 880 yd Irish records in College Park in June and July 1954. Delany ran his first ever mile race in College Park on 4 August 1955 in 4:05.8, an Irish record. At the international meeting at Compton, CA, on 1 June 1956 he became the first Irishman to conquer the 4-min mile barrier, winning in a time of 3:59.0, the 7th runner in the world to have achieved this. Thus, my interest in Ronnie Delany has been two-fold – his performances in College Park which I looked out on from my office window each day from the Department of Microbiology, Trinity College, and pride, as a resident in Co. Wicklow, of his birth in the Co Wicklow and his still unique status as Ireland’s only Gold medallist since 1932 in athletics. He remains an Irish athletics icon.
In 2006 an athletics track was laid down at Greystones in Co Wicklow, four miles south of Bray where I live. To officially open this track and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gold medal win in Melbourne by Ronnie Delany, the county’s most famous athlete, an athletics meeting, “Share the Memory”, was organised to formally open the track. Ronnie Delany was invited to perform this task. As Hon Treasurer of the Wicklow Co. Board I was charged with arranging a presentation to Delany to mark the occasion and to honour his Olympic Gold medal win. Suggestions of a suitable bronze statue or an engraved piece of fine Irish crystal followed. I decided that the presentation should be different and unique. I obtained a rare picture of the finish and four blocks of four of the mint stamps issued by Australia Post for the 1956 Games and had these framed. In ten weeks I researched the 45 entrants and principal athletic officials, wrote short biographies of each competitor and official and had these bound in a presentation volume.
Two years later I decided to embark on a more ambitious project of documenting as fully as I possibly could the principal officials, the unsung people without whom there would be no championships, and to research in particular the forgotten ‘also ran’ athletes from the heats without whom there would have been no 1,500 m championship. The majority of the athletes in the final were well known. However, some of the athletes did not start in their heats – I wanted to know why. Several of the athletes who did not make it to the final in Melbourne later became stellar athletes – Michel Jazy and Mamo Wolde. Delving into the lives of some of the non-runners and of those who did not make it to the 1,500 m final revealed fascinating histories – triumphs over adversities, later contributions to athletics in their home countries, career-ending injuries, how they got into athletics by chance rather than purpose, getting to the Olympics from a background in a third-world country. What started I thought as a one to two year pastime project has become a decade-long project, some would say an obsession. In that time the internet has expanded, the availability of information on the web has increased, communication technology has made it easier to find people. I am also lucky to be able to use the vast resources of the library in Trinity College, which is a copyright library. With the advances in communication technology I was able to find a Liberian athlete and a Thai athlete and to communicate directly with them to complete their stories. Even now with all my research skills and the technological advances, my knowledge of two athletes – one from South Korea and one from Pakistan – is still minimal. I am often asked if this magnum opus will ever be finished. At some point I will have to draw a line under this project, but don’t ask me when!
What is going to happen to this in excess of 1,000-page treatise – it is not intended for publication, too many issues with photographs and copyright. Rather it is my intent to lodge copies the finished work in electronic form in the Olympic Museums in Lausanne, Melbourne, Athens, and Los Angeles, the National Library of Ireland, The Dublin City Library, and the Trinity College Library, as well as present the final version to Ronnie Delany for him and his family. It is intended as the ‘complete’ record of the Melbourne 1,500 m.

(BG I just hope that the project will be completed one day and that I'll have the privilege to be one of the recipients of the book).

BG What would you Iike to add on today’s athletics?

CS When we view athletics on television whether at the Olympic Games, World Championships, European Championships, or a Grand Prix meeting could we have an inset in the top right hand corner of the television picture of the starter so that he or she is not anonymous and could he or she be identified by name. As a starter I like to know who is doing that function. Can we bring back red for the clothing of starters. The trend in anonymous clothing, more for television that the athletic aficionado, means that when one is at a meeting on the far side of the track it is at times impossible to identify the starter among a cluster of officials. In my view the starter should stand out clearly to the spectators, as other than the athletes he or she is the most important track official, the person whose responsible job it is to ensure a fair start for all competitors whether champions or those proudly representing their countries for perhaps the only time in their lives.

It was a great occasion to meet Cyril Smyth even though our encounter has been an electronic one. But, who knows, we may have the occasion to meet in person in one of the great athletics meetings in Paris or elsewhere.

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