Fifty six years ago, the Olympics took place in Rome and featured 5338 athletes from 83 countries. The Games of the XVII Olympiad was where an 18 year-old Cassius Clay first made his name on an international stage when he won the light heavyweight gold medal. Other highlights from the Games included Australia’s Herb Elliott winning the 1500 metres on the track and Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia winning the marathon bare-footed to become the first black African Olympic champion.
The cycling events on both road and track took place from August 26th to 29th and Italy were dominant, winning five out of the six races. The major and most remarkable difference between the racing then and now is that there were no races for women.
Five Irish cyclists were amongst those to take part and the team was managed by Seán Fox. Three riders lined up in the road race – Peter Crinnion from Wicklow, Sonny Cullen from Dublin and Belfast man Séamus Herron with two more riders from Belfast racing on the track – Michael Horgan (Sprint and 1000m time trial) and Martin McKay (Sprint).
Seán’s son Ronan got in touch with us recently to tell us that he had found a box of slides in his father’s attic which had been forgotten about. He has since digitised them and provided some background information about the various photos. The photos are not only of the action from the road and the track, but also show what was happening behind the scenes in the athlete’s village.
Ronan wrote an excellent article a few years ago about the Games and how his father helped to fund the travel expenses to allow the Irish team to travel to Rome. Ronan explained that his father was appointed the team manager “partly because he had been so much a part of getting the team approved and funded and partly because, as a CIE employee, he could travel overland to Rome for free.”
The 175-kilometre Road Race was held over 12 laps of the Grottarossa circuit and was run off in very high temperatures. Viktor Kapitonov of the Soviet Union won with Italy’s Livio Trapè taking silver and Willy van den Berghen of Belgium winning bronze. It was the first gold medal for the Soviet Union in the Olympic road race.
Amongst the recognisable names who lined up in the road race in Rome that day were future Road Race World Champion Benoni Beheyt and future Tour de France winner Jan Janssen.
The Irish riders suffered misfortune though, with Sonny Cullen struck down by illness the day before the race. Cullen suffered with headaches and stomach pains but did manage to start the race the following day. He pulled out after four laps though. Séamus Herron had mechanical difficulties and was forced out of the race.
Peter Crinnion meanwhile was riding well until the tenth lap when he was brought down in a crash. He chased back on but paid for his efforts and was subsequently dropped. According to the Irish report from the Games, Crinnion finished in 45th place out of 50 finishers whereas the official Report from the Games lists him as DNF.
The track races were held at the Olympic Velodrome which had opened just a few months prior to the games. Unfortunately for the Irish riders, their bikes had been delayed on the way over leaving them with little time to practice on the track. Horgan and McKay only managed to try out the track for the first time just twenty minutes before racing started.
Italy’s Sante Gaiardoni went on to win both the Sprint and 1,000 metre Time Trial while Italy won the Team Pursuit and the home pairing of Giuseppe Beghetto and Sergio Bianchetto won the Tandem Sprint.
The velodrome wasn’t utilised too much after the Olympics as problems were found with the construction and despite remedial work taking place on the velodrome, it was abandoned just eight years later and demolished in 2008.
Below are some of the photos from the collection of Seán Fox and we will publish more in a subsequent post.