And so with the 2016 Rio Olympics entering its final couple of days before the Olympic torch is, quite literally, passed over to Tokyo, I thought it would be a good idea to conclude my recent fascination with the extraordinary “Irish Whales”. Having already discussed John Flanagan, Matt McGrath and Martin Sheridan in greater detail, I will be focusing on the lesser-known members of the group. Before that, however, one burning question needs to be addressed first; how did the “Irish Whales” come to be known by their moniker?
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.
The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was Adolf Hitler’s opportunity to showcase Nazi Germany to the world and in particular to promote his ideals of Aryan racial supremacy, through sport. Perversely, the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger” did not sound out of place from the Nazi propaganda being spread at the time.
The German athletes certainly lived up to Hitler’s expectations as they comfortably topped the medals table, winning a total of 89 medals, 33 of which were gold. Despite this, the star athlete of the Games was not a German, but an African-American by the name of Jesse Owens whose four gold medals shattered the Nazi fallacy of Aryan supremacy. As a result Hitler refused to shake his hand, or so the tale goes. Owens was snubbed but not necessarily by Hitler because as is usually the case, history is written (and edited) by the victors. Owens was just as badly treated by his home nation.
Continuing with the theme of the Olympic Games, today’s “Great Irish sportspeople abroad” will focus on another of the extraordinary “Irish Whales”, Matt McGrath. McGrath was the successor to John Flanagan, the subject of yesterday’s post, as the world’s leading hammer thrower. A fellow Munster man, McGrath remained in the top ten in the sport until the age of 50. A three-time Olympic medallist, McGrath was perhaps the most colourful and influential of the “Irish Whales”.
Pub quiz question: who was Ireland’s first-ever Olympic medallist? The answer, more often than not, is Dr Pat O’Callaghan, who won the hammer throw at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. While it is true O’Callaghan was our country’s first Olympic medallist, he was not the first Irishman to win an Olympic medal.* That honour belongs to another, Limerick’s John Flanagan, who competed under the banner of the United States of America, and is the subject of today’s “Great Irish sportspeople abroad”.