On the Shoulders of Giants - Mary Purcell

December 11, 2023

Consider the number of training hours an elite athlete puts down in pursuit of fast times, and the sacrifices they make to be the best in their chosen event - the early morning track sessions, the late-night runs in the wind and rain, the strict diet and gym routines, and juggling all that with balancing your sport with work, the raising of children, and managing of a home. Now consider what it might take to forego all that work and those sacrifices, to give away your last chance to represent your family, your club, your country at the biggest stage of all, at the Olympic Games.

Ireland’s first world class female athlete Mary Purcell had just won Bronze in the 1500m at the 1980 European Indoor Championships in Sindelfingen, a city in West Germany, and the Moscow Olympics were a few short months away. She was in the form of her life but instead of being focused on the ‘Games’, Purcell was weighing up whether competing in the Soviet Union against a field of athletes, many of whom had spent their lives training as part of state sponsored doping programmes, was worth the effort.

At the Montreal Olympics 4 years earlier, Mary Purcell ran a personal best and Irish national record of 4:08.63 in the 1500m heats but swamped by an increasingly dominant pool of East German and Russian athletes she failed to progress. At 31, Purcell knew that Moscow was her last Olympic opportunity, she also knew that the times that the Eastern Bloc athletes were running were ones she was unable to match. Records were tumbling and rumours were rife. For Purcell, who studied pharmacy at UCD and now worked at LEO Laboratories in Crumlin, the drug taking was more obvious than ever. She later recalled her experiences to Ian O’Riordan for a 2018 Irish Times article, “I remember walking behind some of the Russian sprinters, and you know physiological things happen when you’re on certain substances. …. the deepening of the voice, the elongation of the face, loads of little tell-tale signs.” After her exit in the Montreal Heats, Purcell was devasted, “I just said to myself, ‘what the hell is going on here?’ It just knocked the stuffing out of me, because you just knew. There was little testing, and the testing is only as good as the analytic methods you use.”

The hugely competitive Purcell had always been driven to find those 1%’s and to maximise her potential. Long before altitude training was a stable of every elite athlete’s programme, Purcell went on running camps at 6000ft in St. Mortiz. She was clocking up 130 miles every week, including 30 mile runs over the Dublin Mountains all under the guidance of her husband and coach Peter Purcell. The fact that Purcell worked so hard to find legitimate and legal ways to be competitive alongside her knowledge of pharmaceuticals and their potential impact on performance must have made what was happening on the international stage all the more sickening.

Mary Purcell (nee Tracey) was the dominant female athlete in Ireland throughout the 70's. Alongside her appearances at the Olympics in Munich 1972 (800m and 1500m) and Montreal 1976 (1500m) she also competed at two European Championships, five World Cross Country Championships, and won 13 Irish national titles. She broke 12 Irish records and went unbeaten on home soil from 1972 to 1976.

As the Moscow Games grew closer, Purcell became more disillusioned. In the end, she quietly withdrew and began to focus on longer distances. After the birth of her second daughter in 1981, Purcell moved up to the marathon. She won the national marathon title in Limerick in 1982 and the Dublin Marathon in 1983.

Although no athletes were caught doping at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, it was later revealed that many were using testosterone and other drugs for which tests had not been developed. A 1989 report by a committee of the Australian Senate claimed that "there is hardly a medal winner at the Moscow Games, certainly not a gold medal winner ... who is not on one sort of drug or another: usually several kinds. The Moscow Games might well have been called the Chemists' Games".

In 2018, Mary Purcell was inducted into the Athletics Ireland Hall of Fame. Reflecting on her remarkable 12-year career one can’t help but swing between moments of ground-breaking success and thoughts of what might have been.

Tadhg Crowley

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