Martin Sheridan is the most successful Irish-born athlete in Olympic history, having won five golds, three silvers and one bronze medal during a period of four years. Considered the greatest all-round athlete of the first decade of the 20th century, Co. Mayo’s Martin Sheridan is the topic of today’s “great Irish sportspeople abroad” series.

Martin Sheridan was born in the rural village of Bohola, Co. Mayo on 28 March 1881, the second-youngest of six children. His father, Martin Snr, worked the 90-acre family farm, which he inherited from his father. Martin Snr was active in the Fenian movement and was a co-founder of the Land League along with Michael Davitt. The republican connection doesn’t end there. Michael’s brother Joe also married a girl called Kitty Collins whose brother was a certain Michael Collins.

Martin Sheridan
Mayo’s Martin Sheridan; the greatest all-round Olympian of the 1900s according to the Olympic website.

In 1899, Martin immigrated to the United States along with two of his brothers. As is typical of his fellow “Irish Whales”, Sheridan joined the New York Police Department in 1906. He excelled in the force, eventually rising to the rank of first-grade detective. Such was the respect he commanded, whenever the Governor of New York was present in New York City, Sheridan would serve as his bodyguard. Sheridan remained in the force until his death in 1918.

Martin was introduced to athletics by his brother Richard, himself a keen discus thrower and American champion in 1898 and 1899. Martin was a naturally-gifted athlete. At 6′ 1″ tall and weighing 191 lbs, he competed in a huge range of events including discus, shot put, javelin, long jump, high jump and pole vault but to name a few.

During the height of his career, he set 16 world records, mostly in the throwing events. Sheridan was near-unbeatable during a 14-year period when he won nine Olympic medals, 12 U.S. national titles and more than 30 Canadian, metropolitan, and regional championships. The Olympic website reflects this:

Irish-American Martin Sheridan was the world’s finest all-round athlete until the arrival of Jim Thorpe, and the greatest discus thrower until Al Oerter.

He first came to notice in 1901, when he won a discus competition in New York. By 1904 he had won the American discus and shot put titles. As such he was chosen to represent the United States at that year’s Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri.

At the 1904 Games, Sheridan won gold in the discus throw, sharing first place with Ralph Rose as they both threw identical distances of 128′ 10.5″. This remains the first and only occasion such a situation arose in the Olympic discus.

Three weeks after St. Louis however, Sheridan stood out on his own, smashing the world record, after throwing 133′ 6.5″.

He successfully defended his title two years later at the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens. The 1906 Games were considered official by the IOC at the time but have since been discounted. As such, although Sheridan won a staggering nine Olympic medals in his lifetime, only four of these are now considered official medals by the IOC. Despite this, it is still a remarkable haul that took only four years to amass. Sheridan also won gold in the shot put, and silver in the standing long jump, standing high jump, and stone throw in Athens. He was expected to take the gold in the pentathlon, too but only a leg injury could prevent him from taking another medal home.

Sheridan also caused diplomatic stir not too disimilar to what happened at the 1908 Olympics in London. It was customary at the time for athletes to lower the flag of their native country when passing by the dignitaries, which included the Greek royal family. Sheridan, when passing the Greek King George I, refused to lower the Irish flag he was carrying. When asked as to why he ignored protocol, Sheridan said that Ireland had bowed too often, but not anymore.

Unlike the British in 1908, the Greek king was impressed by the Mayo man’s national pride. He had a statue erected to him in Athens and presented Sheridan with a golden goblet and vaulting pole.

Flanagan, Sheridan & Mitchell - Copy
Sheridan (centre) alongside fellow “Irish Whales” John Flanagan (left) and James Mitchell (right) in St. Louis.

Sheridan also played an integral role at the heated 1908 London Olympics, covered in the two previous articles about fellow “Whales” John Flanagan and Matt McGrath. After the controversy over the refusal of the American flag bearer, Ralph Rose, to dip the Stars & Stripes to the king, Sheridan was reputed to have defended his actions by stating “this flag dips to no earthly king”. You can take the Irishman out of Ireland but you cannot take Ireland out of the Irishman, it seems. However this has since been disproven, having only been first reported in the 1950s. Regardless, the American flag has remained unbowed ever since at Olympic ceremonies.

Sheridan had an outstanding Olympics in London, winning gold in the discus and the Greek discus and a bronze in the standing long jump. Despite winning the shot put in Athens two years previously, Sheridan did not participate in the event in London.

Before returning to the United States, Sheridan visited Ireland on the way back. He was received as a hero all over the country but especially in his hometown of Bohola. There, he was presented with a scroll dedicated to “our greatest athlete Martin Sheridan” from the “priest and people of his native parish of Bohola”. It also said further down:

Greece had her, Seander, Rome her Spartacus, and Scotland her Wallace but it remained for Ireland to turn out the best athlete of them all.

Sheridan retired from athletics in 1911 at the age of 30 to focus on his policework, thereby not defending his discus for the third time in Stockholm.

In March 1918, Martin contracted pneumonia during the 1918 influenza pandemic and was admitted to hospital. He died on the eve of his 37th birthday on 27 March 1918.

To keep his legacy as an officer of the law alive, the Martin J. Sheridan award for valour was established and is awarded annually to an NYPD member for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. In 1988 he was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame at Indianapolis, Indiana, joining his fellow “Whales” such as John Flanagan and Matt McGrath.

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