Irish Indoor Athletics... A Proud and Successful History

3 February 2005

AAI's PRO and resident historian Pierce O'Callaghan takes a stroll down memory lane and revisits some of the many Indoor successes Irish athletes have had over the years.

On a weekend which sees the return of the National Indoor Championships to its spiritual home in Nenagh, it is appropriate to celebrate some of the other milestones that form part of a glorious history of Indoor athletics by the nation’s top athletes. For a country of limited resources, from both a population and facilities viewpoint, Ireland has an unrivalled success rate on the indoor track boasting a remarkable 5 World Indoor Championship Gold medal winners as well as having twice as many World Indoor Records set by Irish men and women.

Arguably, it could be said that the pioneer of the modern successes was Cork-man Con Leahy, who is the generally regarded as the first Irishman to win a medal in the US Indoor Championships taking bronze in the High Jump in 1907 with a jump of 1.82m.

However, it was two Ulster based women who pioneered the sport on the fairer side with Commonwealth Games hero Thelma Hopkins becoming the first Irish born woman to set a World Record when she high jumped 1.65m to break the existing record by the smallest of margins in Manchester in 1957. Her fellow Ulster woman Maeve Kyle went on to become the first Irish woman to win a medal at a major championship by taking bronze in the 1966 European Indoor Championships in 57.3 seconds.

Indeed the European Indoor Championships were to provide no shortage of success for the Irish in the late 60’s and early 70’s with pride of place going to Noel Carroll who won three gold and one bronze medal over 800m. (See word document below)

The inaugural IAAF World Indoor Championships which were held in Indianapolis in 1987 saw four Irish athletes selected to compete lead by the “Chairman of the Boards” Eamonn Coghlan, accompanied by Marcus O’Sullivan in the 1,500m along with Frank O’Mara (Limerick) and Paul Donovan (Galway City Harriers) in the 3,000m. Unprecedented success followed with O’Sullivan and O’Mara striking gold in the 1,500m and 3,000m respectively and Donovan making it an Irish one-two with silver in the 3,000m. Amazingly it was the hottest of hot favourites, the ever popular Coghlan who failed to make it a 100% record for the Ronnie Long-Sean Naughton managed team by falling in his heat and failing to make it to the final.

Further success was to follow the Leevale man, (who went to break the 4 minute mile 100 times), when he defended his 1,500m title in 1989 in front of a capacity crowd in the Budapest Indoor arena. Ironically, the TV pictures showed approximately 25% of which were Irish football fans who witnessed athletics history in the making before an important  World Cup qualifier 2 days later! For Limericks O’Mara, who was based in Arkansas, he entered the championships carrying an injury but bravely battled to defend his title before eventually finishing 5th.

His disappointment was to be short-lived however coming back to regain his crown in Seville in 1991 running an Irish Record of 7.41.14 which was only bettered by Olympic 5,000m finalist Alistair Cragg last year. Indeed Seville was to be a complete reversal of the previous edition in Budapest as O’Sullivans dreams of three in a row came undone by finishing 4th behind the great Nouredine Morceli and Ferman Cacho, both of whom subsequently went on to win Olympic Gold over 1,500m.

Toronto hosted the fourth edition of the Championships and with Irish gold at the previous three editions hopes were high of a fourth consecutive gold and Marcus O’Sullivan again lived up to his billing winning a record third title over 1,500m and a place in the Irish Sporting folklore for ever.

Barcelona hosted the next edition in 1995 and the country was on tender hooks as both O’Sullivan and Dubliner Niall Bruton qualified for the final of the 1,500m. A slow tactical race played into the hands of both Irishmen but it was not to be with O’Sullivan bowing out in 11th place and Bruton giving a glimpse of things to come with a fine 4th placing --  .14 of a second behind bronze in a race won by World Record Holder and double Olympic Champion Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.

1997 saw the turn of Paris to host the Championships and this edition saw Sonia O’Sullivan debut in the competition over 3,000m. Determined to wash away the disappointment of the Atlanta Olympics of the previous Summer, she led coming down the home straight only to be passed by the diminutive Romanian Gabriela Szabo, a name the Irish sporting public were to familiarise themselves greatly with over the following years.

2000 saw Indoor Athletics again grab the front page headlines with Leevale’s Mark Carroll scorching the final lap of the 3,000m to strike gold ahead of Portugal’s Olympic medalist Rui Silva while Offaly’s James Nolan made a hugely successful start to his 1500m career by taking the silver medal behind Spains Redalot and ahead of French super-star Mehdi Baala.

In a changing sign of the times it was 400m star Karen Shinkins who was next on the medal rostrum at a major indoor event when she created history by taking bronze over the 2 lap event in Vienna in 2002 and 12 months later was emulated by Belfast’s Paul McKee who took a joint bronze medal in the World Championships in Birmingham over 400m in a nail biting final in which 19 year old Kildare man David McCarthy finished a magnificent 5th.

Amazingly, and without the reigning bronze medalist McKee, 12 months later it was another successful return to Budapest for the Irish when an elite quartet of Rob Daly, Gary Ryan, David Gillick, David McCarthy took an unprecedented bronze medal in the 4x400m relay with the might of the USA being listed behind them in the official results!

On the domestic front the inaugural Irish Indoor Championships were held in the Nenagh Indoor Arena on March 13th 1987 which were a tribute to Sean Naughton’s vision to provide Indoor facilities to the Country. The Championships were open to athletes from all over the island and have proved a remarkable success over the years.

This year sees the Championships return to Nenagh after 2 great years in the magnificant Odyssey Arena in Belfast, and as the trials for the forthcoming European Indoor Championships in Madrid are coinciding with the Championships we are sure a great weekend of top class athletics.

Enjoy the action!

By Pierce O’Callaghan

Public Relations Officer, AAI

Irish Indoor Medallists, Roll of Honour and Junior Roll of Honour (.doc)


Disclaimer - The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AAI


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