Long jump records often stick around for quite a while. On May 25 1935 Jesse Owens jumped over twenty-six feet eight inches (8.13 metres) in Ann Arbor, Michigan creating a new world record. It stood for twenty-five years. For good measure within an inspired spell of forty-five minutes Owens also broke two other world records and equalled a fourth. At the Mexico Olympics in 1968 Bob Beamon leaped a phenomenal twenty-nine feet two and a half inches to break the previous record by almost two feet. When he was told what he had done he collapsed in a heap and had to be helped to his feet by fellow competitors. That record stood for almost twenty-three years before being broken by Mike Powell.
So a record that lasted a mere two decades isn’t a lot to get excited about. Unless you’re Irish. And even if you are you’ve probably never heard of Peter O’Connor. But he won two Olympic medals in 1906, one of them gold. As far as O’Connor was concerned he won them for Ireland but they are down in the record books as United Kingdom medals.
O’Connor was from Ashford in Wicklow, though he was born in England to an Irish family. A talented athlete he joined the GAA as a twenty-four year old in 1896 and three years later won All Ireland medals in the long jump, high jump and triple jump – then called the ‘hop, step and jump’. In those days the GAA did not just cater forwhat we now call Gaelic Games. Over the next decade O’Connor beat all comers, including the best Britain had to offer. In 1900 he was invited to join the UK Olympic team. He declined to invitation as his wish was to represent Ireland internationally.
His opportunity finally appeared to come in 1906. In that year the International Olympic Committee organized what were formally called the Intercalated Games in Athens. This was because the 1900 and 1904 Olympics in Paris and St. Louis had both been overshadowed by the parallel international expositions or World Fairs. The first games in 1896 in Athens had been the only truly successful ones up to that point. The idea was that the Olympics would return to their spiritual home in Greece every two years and would then be staged at some other international venue two years later. It never quite worked out and the experiment was only tried in 1906.
But it looked as if the Intercalated Games would accept the inclusion of an Irish team. So the rival GAA and Irish Amateur Athletic Association jointly nominated O’Connor, along with two other athletes, Con Leahy and John Daly, to compete under an Irish flag. This was a golden harp and shamrock on a green background bearing the legend ‘Erin go Bragh’. However the IOC reneged and permission for the three men to compete for Ireland was withdrawn. When they travelled to Athens and registered they were told they would have to represent the United Kingdom. With great reluctance the three athletes bowed to the inevitable.
O’Connor went to the Games as long jump world record holder. He had leaped almost twenty-five feet in Dublin in 1901. In the Athens event, however, he was opposed by the previous holder of the world best mark, Myer Prinstein of the USA. The only judge at the event just happened to be the American team manager. O’Connor protested but was ignored. Prinstein won the gold, O’Connor finished second. At the medal ceremony O’Connor saw red … white and blue as the Union Jack was raised to mark his silver medal. Carrying the Irish banner he had brought to Athens he climbed up the pole and replaced the offending Union flag with the ‘Harp and Shamrock’. His compatriots Con Leahy and John Daly stood at the bottom of the pole just in case anyone might try and stymie the gesture.
Later O’Connor competed against Leahy in the hop, step and jump, his teammate having taken gold in the high jump. Here O’Connor won a gold medal of his own, Prinstein, champion in 1900 and 1904 was not placed.
O’Connor, by then thirty-four years old and clearly past his best, did not compete in any further Olympic Games. Undoubtedly his nationalism, which did not permit him to represent the United Kingdom until forced by circumstances to do so, denied him numerous Olympic medals in 1900 and 1904.
He settled in Waterford working as a solicitor and became a founder member of the Waterford Athletic Club. He died there in 1957 at the age of 85. His long jump world best set in 1901 stood as an Irish record until 1990, when it was finally broken by Carlos O’Connell. The first British competitor to beat O’Connor’s mark was the legendary Welsh athlete and Olympic gold medallist Lynn Davis, who didn’t lower it until 1962.
Peter O’Connor set a new long jump world record of twenty-four feet, eleven and three-quarter inches at the RDS in Dublin one hundred and fifteen years ago, on this day.