The first IAAF World Cross-Country Championships held in Ghent in 1973 were not without controversy, especially from an Irish point of view.
A group of six ‘intruders’ representing the old NACA organisation (who joined up with BLE to form Athletics Ireland in 2000) decided to make a protest at the participation of two Irish teams instead of one. After around 3km of the 12km race had been completed, the six runners in white vests with two black hoops slipped under a rope and joined the leaders, causing mayhem. Many of the top runners were sent flying, the biggest casualty being race favourite Rod Dixon (one of the most versatile runners in the world at the time with a mile best of 3:53.62 and who would go on to win the NYC Marathon 10 years later in 2:08:59). Despite a ‘kidney punch’, the New Zealander got going again to finish third behind Pekka Paivarinta and Mariano Haro.
The following report by Fionnbar Callanan appeared in ‘Marathon’, the only Irish athletics magazine of the time, and gives a vivid description on what ensued:
“With almost exactly one quarter of the race over, the field was headed by a tightly grouped 18 or 20 runners. In the forefront, and almost running abreast, were Paivarinta (Finland), Haro (Spain), Cusack (Ireland), Clarke (England) and Dixon (New Zealand). At this point the course was no more than eight yards wide.
|Neil Cusack of Ireland (Centre...#30) would later go on to win the 1974 Boston Marathon|
“The group of six intruders ran onto the course in front of the faster-moving field. Neil Cusack told me his first reaction was one of amazement that they could have already lapped some of the runners. But, some spectators and officials realised that the intruders had come on and efforts were quickly made to hustle them off. They resisted and then the field were upon them. The rather awkward arm action of Paivarinta took him through the intruders and sent some of them flying. The diminutive Haro was forced to resort to more belligerent action to get through and the intruders lifted him off his feet before throwing him into a ditch. Cusack was buffeted but no more. Dixon was given a kidney punch and he told me later that ‘this finished me.’ Eddie Leddy was tripped and fell flat on his face being severely winded in doing so. One Moroccan runner was punched in the face and he was unable to continue.
|The eventual winner Pekka Päivärinta of Finland with a narrow lead|
“As the race resumed more normal appearances, the Belgian police detained one of the intruders and he was paraded back towards the stands. Here, the irate Moroccan saw him and made violent efforts to get at him but had no great success. When the race had concluded, most of the Irish party learned of the intrusion for the first time and there was a great outburst of resentment and anger. Somebody spotted some of the intruders a short distance away and there was a rush towards them. Some of them were caught and struck before wiser counsel prevailed.”
Fionnbar Callanan also stated that the day had begun with happiness for the Irish with a special St Patrick’s Day Mass said by Father Paddy Coyle (a member of the team) in the 12th Century Crypt of St Bravo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Team manager Billy Coghlan (father of Eamonn) had also thoughtfully provided shamrock for all members of the official Irish part and their supporters. “In ended, for me and many others, in anger and shame that the name of Ireland had been dragged in the mud by a thoughtless, irresponsible and undignified performance,” he concluded.
|Päivärinta of Finland wins by just 0.1 seconds|
Thankfully, we have moved on a lot from those days of four decades ago. For the record, the following are the positions of the Irish team – three of whom were from Cork - who finished 11th of the 18 teams on that occasion. Neil Cusack, who had been injured before the race, had to drop out and no doubt the intrusion didn’t help matters.
1973...1st Pekka Päivärinta FIN 35:47, 2nd Mariano Haro ESP 35:47, 3rd Rod Dixon NZL 36:00
25th Eddie Leddy (Ballinamore); 63rd Donie Walsh (Leevale); 67th Danny McDaid (Clonliffe); 69th Paddy Coyle (Lourdes); 84th Pat O’Riordan (Leevale); 85th Richard Crowley (St Finbarrs); 109th Eddie Spillane (Donore).