Billy Mor­ton and his sta­dium shows what can be done if we give sport a chance

The Irish Times - - Sports Weekend - Ian O’Rior­dan

‘Gen­tle­men,” the small man be­gan, “grass is on the way out.” Knowl­edge of sport is no ex­cuse for a lack of imag­i­na­tion, or vice versa, and Billy Mor­ton learned early on not to let one get in the way of the other.

In the spring of 1958, at the back of his op­ti­cian’s shop on Berke­ley Road on Dublin’s north side, Mor­ton told a small gath­er­ing of re­porters about his plan to build the first proper ath­let­ics track in the coun­try. The grass was soft and pretty around Trin­ity, but only cin­ders had the mak­ings of world records.

Mor­ton knew some­thing about run­ning. In 1936, the year of Jesse Owens at the Ber­lin Olympics, he won the Ir­ish na­tional marathon ti­tle, putting in a fine shift of 2:48.27, in the colours of his club Clon­liffe Har­ri­ers. He also had a way with words, when run­ning his busi­ness and es­pe­cially in the busi­ness of run­ning, be­com­ing this coun­try’s first and last great ath­let­ics pro­moter, and a re­minder still of the po­ten­tial in­flu­ence of the small man with big ideas.

It’s a legacy that lasts not just with the ath­let­ics sta­dium on the north side named in his hon­our: Mor­ton re­alised the value in think­ing within and out­side the box, and if the new Min­is­ter of State for Sport Dara Cal­leary is look­ing for some fresh ideas, to go along with his post of Chief Whip, there may be some in­spi­ra­tion in the old Santry sod.

This is one min­is­te­rial po­si­tion, ju­nior or oth­er­wise, which has never been shy of mak­ing claims and some­times mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. Shane Ross, in his old term at the Depart­ment of Sport, gen­er­ally left Bren­dan Grif­fin to work up the real sport­ing sweat but oc­ca­sion­ally pre­sented his own bold am­bi­tions, telling an Oireach­tas Com­mit­tee in 2017 that he would ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of Dublin host­ing the Olympics, if Ire­land’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup was suc­cess­ful.

As it turned out Ire­land didn’t win that Rugby World Cup bid. And Ross might well have heeded the words of his once col­league Pat Hickey, given he was the one who fa­mously re­sponded by say­ing “we couldn’t even build the jacks” when it came to host­ing the Olympics, after that sug­ges­tion was first put for­ward back by Gay Mitchell, then lord mayor of Dublin, back in 1992.


There is no doubt some would have scorned Mor­ton’s year-long cam­paign for a cin­der ath­let­ics track on the small slice of road­side land he had pur­chased next to Santry Court, the once grand demesne of Lord Barry and the Domville fam­ily. Fa­mously small in stature, Mor­ton’s big idea must have sounded like one of the most am­bi­tious in Ir­ish sport, helped in part by the gen­tle plea of Ron­nie De­lany, who two years ear­lier had won the Olympic 1,500m gold medal in Mel­bourne.

At a home­com­ing event cov­ered by Sports Il­lus­trated reporter Ger­ald Hol­land, the son of a Clare em­i­grant, the 21-year-old De­lany said: “Gen­tle­men, while it’s all very well for peo­ple to be clap­ping me on the back and shak­ing my hand . . . the con­struc­tive thing I want to see is the build­ing of a cin­der track on the site which Billy Mor­ton has ac­quired at Santry.”

That line alone prompted an­other Ir­ish-Amer­i­can, Bernard McDonough, of Gal­way stock, to make a $1,000 do­na­tion to Mor­ton’s cause and pro­vide him with one of his chromium-plated Ames Com­pany shov­els, that busi­ness run­ning since the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary days in Amer­ica, McDonough work­ing his way up from fac­tory floor to out­right owner.

Mor­ton in­vited De­lany out to Santry to turn the first sod. Grass was in­deed on the way out, and it later tran­spired that cin­ders would be too, but for the first time Ire­land had an ath­let­ics track wor­thy of in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. All Mor­ton needed then was a big event to help pro­mote the open­ing, and De­lany again obliged by agree­ing to line up against some of the best mil­ers of the time, in­clud­ing Murray Hal­berg from New Zealand, and a 20-year-old Aus­tralian named Herb El­liott.

Mor­ton then con­vinced Hal­berg and El­liott to come to Santry after pay­ing them a visit at the Bri­tish Em­pire Games, in Cardiff. Adopt­ing one of the most suc­cess­ful sport­ing spoofs of all time, Mor­ton told them: “We have these lush, green trees all around the track, and what they do is they suck in the oxy­gen all day long, and then in the evening, they re­lease it all again. Just as the races be­gin. There is more oxy­gen around the track in Santry than anywhere else in the world. That’s what makes it so fast. That, and the spe­cially slick cin­ders.”

Who knows if Hal­berg and El­liott ac­tu­ally be­lieved him, but like any great pro­moter,


Mor­ton was this coun­try’s first and last great ath­let­ics pro­moter, and a re­minder still of the po­ten­tial in­flu­ence of the small man with big ideas

Mor­ton’s en­thu­si­asm had sold them. Then on the evening on Au­gust 6th, hav­ing re­port­edly spent the pre­vi­ous night con­sum­ing his fair share of a black Ir­ish bev­er­age at a ho­tel on the Botanic Road, El­liott knocked more than 2½ sec­onds off the world mile record with his 3:54.5, with an­other Aus­tralian Mervyn Lin­coln sec­ond in 3:55,9, and De­lany third in 3:37.5, the first five run­ners all run­ning in­side four min­utes. This was just four years after Roger Ban­nis­ter ran his 3:59.4, and El­liott’s record stood for four years, un­til Peter Snell ran his 3:54.4, and the crowd as­sem­bled in Santry that evening, es­ti­mated at 25,000, re­mains a record at­ten­dance for an ath­let­ics meet­ing in this coun­try, 62 years on.

What­ever about Mor­ton’s chem­i­cal ra­tio­nale for the fast times at Santry, his imag­i­na­tion didn’t stop there. A year later, in 1959, he per­suaded Lord Moyne, then chair­man of Guin­ness, to pay for a banked cy­cling track, on the out­side of the run­ning track, That sum­mer he put on a cy­cling event that fea­tured Shay El­liott, the Dublin cy­clist who later be­come the first Ir­ish man to wear the yel­low jersey in the Tour de France, in a 4,000m in­di­vid­ual pur­suit against Fausto Coppi, the Ital­ian who won the Tour de France twice, and the Giro d’Italia five times. El­liott won.

Cal­leary, by all ac­counts, had big­ger am­bi­tions be­yond sport, his knowl­edge of both only now lim­ited by his imag­i­na­tion.

All we are say­ing is give sport a chance.

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