On the Shoulders of Giants - John Treacy

December 15, 2023

“Down on the track we are looking at two men, an Irishman and a Briton. They are going for silver, they are going for bronze. John Treacy has 100 metres to go. In the past Ireland have won Bronze medals: John Caldwell, Freddie Gilroy, Socks Byrne, Jim McCourt, and Hugh Russell. They’ve won Gold: Pat O’Callaghan twice, Bob Tisdall, Ron Delaney. They’ve won Silvers with John McNally, Fred Tiedt, Wilkins, Wilkinson and for the thirteenth time an Irish medal goes to John Treacy!”, Jimmy Magee’s iconic commentary from the Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles 1984. A defining moment in the career of one of Ireland’s greatest athletes perfectly captured by “The Memory Man”. But it wasn’t a straightforward route to the LA Coliseum and Olympic Marathon in August 1984 for John Treacy, in fact, he only fully decided to run the marathon (his first) after the 10,000m Olympic Final (5 days earlier) had not gone to plan.

As a teenager growing up in Waterford, John Treacy’s love for running was fostered by his club St. Nicholas AC and by his older brother Ray, who would pass him down his old running books while also standing in as his coach, sharing his understanding of endurance running and training methods. John’s mileage was made up predominantly of the daily 9-mile commute to school. Success at World Junior Cross Country Championships in 1974 and again in 1975 (3rd place on both occasions) put Treacy on the radar of a number of US colleges and it was to Rhode Island and Providence College he headed.

In the soaring heat of LA, John Treacy had settled into his debut outing over the 26.2. miles by firstly looking to track one of the pre-race favourites Alberto Salazar. The goal to find a nice pack/pace early on and take on board plenty of fluids. Salazar was having an off-day and soon Treacy was eyeing up another target, the Japanese runner Toshihiko Seko. Making up for the error of four years earlier and the lack of preparation for the heat, Treacy had put significant focus on training in warm weather conditions prior to LA and the early evening sun was not taking its toll on the West Waterford man. In fact, at half-way Treacy was still feeling like he was “out for a Sunday stroll”. As the pack reached the 20-mile marker Charlie Spedding made a move and brought with him Treacy, Carlos Lopez (the eventual winner) and Kenya’s Joseph Nzau.

Treacy’s first Olympic experience came in Moscow 1980. The St. Nicholas Athletics Club man headed to the Soviet Union in peak condition, full of confidence and with high ambitions. Running the 10000m heat and in fourth position (within an auto-qualifying spot) with 200m to go, John Treacy collapsed on the track from heat exhaustion. His first ever DNF and on the biggest sporting occasion. Despite medical advice to rest and recover, Treacy was adamant that he would run the 5000m. He safely navigated his way through the heats and semi-final. A 7th place finish in the final and Treacy had left everything out on the track. He had managed to save his Olympics and ended up with a top ten in the world placing. Treacy later reflected on this turnaround as the greatest triumph of his athletics career.

As the lead group passed the 23-mile marathon marker, Carlos Lopes made a break that would win him the Gold medal. Treacy had looked to cover the move but quickly realised that he wasn’t in a position to match Lopes’ speed. And so, it came down to a battle between Spedding and Treacy for silver and bronze. With Charlie Spedding considering the right time to make his next move, Treacy made his. The moment that defined the final placings of the ’84 Olympic Marathon podium happened in the blink of an eye. Treacy headed off down the tunnel into the coliseum having forged a bit of gap on the Englishman. His hope was that he could enjoy the last 500m and soak in the raucous atmosphere inside the stadium.

Treacy had experienced his fair share of excitable crowds and ferocious atmospheres. In 1979, the World Cross Country Championships were held on a muddy Greenpark Racecourse in Limerick, and the home support had the defending champion 21-year-old John Treacy to cheer on. On a wet and cold Sunday afternoon in March, Treacy had as he described it ‘the perfect race’. Despite the pressure of racing on Irish soil as champion, cheered on by thousands of wild supporters who invaded the course at various points, the Waterford man effortlessly raced to victory.

Charlie Spedding had other ideas. A quick glance behind as he stepped on to the coliseum track and Treacy could see Spedding closing in. “And John Treacy appears in the stadium”, “He’s very tired”, “He’s tired but he’s great and he’s good, and he’s hanging on”. What was required was a final kick and typical of the tenacity, the courage and the fight of Treacy, he produced exactly what was needed.

The crowd stands for the Irishman from Villierstown in Waterford. My fellow commentators are on their feet. It is quite remarkable. The little man with the great heart.”

Tadhg Crowley

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