Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: 43 years ago this weekend...The International Military Championship in Ballincollig

Monday, March 19, 2012

43 years ago this weekend...The International Military Championship in Ballincollig

St.Patrick's Day 1969. Some 7,000 people gathered in Ballincollig to watch the Olympic 5,000m champion Mohammed Gammoudi from Tunisia take part in the International Military Cross-Country Championships. The article below was written by John Walshe in 2009 for the Evening Echo and is reproduced here with his kind permission...


St Patrick’s Day in 1969 fell on a Monday and the weekend was marred by torrential rain and gale-force winds. But despite the inclement weather, around 7,000 spectators braved the conditions and headed to Ballincollig where they witnessed an inspirational performance by an Irish Army team who finished second in the International Military Cross-Country Championships held over a gruelling course.

And they were also privileged to see one of their own, 22-year-old John Buckley from nearby Blarney, not only lead the Irish team home but also notch up an illustrious victory over the man who had won the Olympic 5,000 gold just five months before, Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia.

Today, John Buckley is the proprietor of the well-known sports shop that bears his name just across from the Christy Ring Bridge on Mulgrave Road. The enthusiasm for the sport is as great as ever, the runners’ physique still remains and it’s hard to believe four decades have passed since that famous day

Known as the CISM Meeting, the International Military Championship had at last come to Ireland in 1969 and the eight national teams taking part included squads from Tunisia and Morocco, the latter having finished in the top three for the previous six years. There was also a prominent team from the United States selected from all branches of the armed forces. It included former indoor three-mile record holder Tracy Smith from California and Bill Clark, runner-up in the previous year’s Boston Marathon.

But unquestionably the star attraction was Gammoudi, the defending champion. Born in Sidi Ach, Tunisia, he was one of the pioneers of the African long distance running revolution that would change the face of the sport forever. One of the favourites for the 10,000m at the previous October’s Mexico Olympics, Gammoudi was out-sprinted by Naftali Temu of Kenya and Mamo Wolde from Ethiopia, leaving him with the bronze medal. A few days later, in the final of the 5,000m, three runners were in contention at the bell with Gammoudi leading Temu and another Kenyan, Kip Keino. The last lap was run at a furious pace, and although the two Kenyans gave charge, Gammoudi held on to his lead to win the gold.

The Irish challenge for Ballincollig was made up in the main from members of the FCA, as John Buckley explains. “I suppose you could say we were headhunted because of our running talent, I can’t say we did much military training,” he recalls with a smile. “We felt we had a very good team with the likes of Sean O’Sullivan who was the National champion, Tom O’Riordan, Danny McDaid from Donegal, Kildare-man Jim Timoney and of course Matt Murphy from Rising Sun.”

At the start of that winter’s cross-country season, Buckley had two main aims - to make the Irish national team for the International (now World) Championships in Glasgow and to get on the Irish military team for Ballincollig. His training had gone well, clocking up an average of 100 miles a week. Made up of ten sessions, it included a long run plus an interval and hill session. “I worked as rep for Bachelor’s at the time so I was away two nights a week but when at home I trained with the likes of Ritchie Crowley, Pat O’Connell, Jerome O’Leary, Haulie Madden, Tim O’Donovan and my brother Denis.”

Buckley was in great form coming up to the All-Ireland but came down with a bad ‘flu the week of the race. Against his better judgement he decided to run but finished well down the field and was controversially omitted from the Irish team for Glasgow. One week later, in the trial for the military team, he felt a good deal better and came in third. “I really wanted to prove a point in Ballincollig so there was a fair bit of pressure coming up to the race,” remembers Buckley. “There was great hype in the build-up with Gammoudi coming. I had met him two years earlier in Luxembourg and had my photo taken with him and his brother, who also ran.”

On the Sunday morning when Buckley woke early and heard the rain beating on the window, he was happy. It would make the race more a test of stamina rather than speed and he preferred it when the going was soft. “I felt good before the race, the confidence was high and of course we had huge support on the day which gave us all a boost.” Buckley got away with the leaders and as the race progressed he knew from the crowd that the Irish team were in with a chance of making the medals. He was the leading Irishman and ahead of Gammoudi which really spurred him on.

Up front, the Moroccans were well in control with the 22-year-old unknown Ou Moha Bassou defeating his countryman Haddou Jabor by a foot in a thrilling sprint to the line. Hannachi of Tunisia and Joachim Leiss, the West German holder of the European 1,500m indoor title, finished within three second of the winner to take the third and fourth spots.

The winning time was 32 minutes and 32 seconds with Buckley crossing the line just 23 seconds later for a brilliant ninth position, two places ahead of his team-mate Sean O’Sullivan with Gammoudi following in 12th place. Tom O’Riordan came in 15th, Matt Murphy 19th, Jim Timoney 25th, Danny McDaid 26th, another Corkman, Pat O’Connell 42nd and the late Eddie Spillane 46th. When the points were tallied the Irish had a total of 105, giving them the silver medals ahead of Tunisia, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium and the fancied USA who never got to grips with the conditions.  “I was delighted with my finishing position and of course the silver team medal was the icing on the cake,” recalls Buckley.

Writing the following week in the Sunday Independent, John Comyn described the Corkman’s race as “one of the greatest performance I have seen by an Irish athlete in an international event.” Comyn also commented on the huge crowd who braved the elements which proved “that there is still a great following for the sport in Cork.”

John Buckley would go on to win the All-Ireland Inter-Clubs and Inter-County titles in 1972 and then, almost 20 years later, become World Veterans champion three times over in the M45 age-group. But that wet and muddy day exactly 40 years ago on the fields of Ballincollig where he defeated the famous Mohammed Gammoudi must surely rank as one of his finest moments.

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