By Tadhg Peavoy
Competing for Ireland at the Olympics is the ultimate goal of any athlete from these shores. Although these things don’t always go according to plan.
Phil Conway threw the shot putt for Ireland at the Munich 1972 Olympics. However, the competition had a disappointing outcome for the Boston University-educated athlete as he could only manage to finish in 27th position out of 29 in Germany. We spoke to Conway to canvass the memories of a lesser-known Irish Olympian.
“[It was] great to be there, great to have the honour of representing the country. My putting wasn’t at the performance of what I would have liked it to have been. But that’s the way it goes and you learn a lot about sport at the high level,” said Conway.
“The Games were famous for perhaps the wrong reasons. One of the highlights was going into the stadium and they’re playing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, blasted out over the loudspeakers.”
Conway singles out Northern Ireland’s Mary Peters winning gold in the pentathlon, and the Munich massacre, where members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed by the Palestinian group Black September, as two of the major talking points of the Games.
“Mary Peters winning was a great thing for us, and then you had the shootings. I haven’t got a lot of memories of them. I saw most of them in the daily newspaper that was published within the village. And we were miles from it really. People on the outside probably saw more.
“More issue was made of the shootings when I came home and was asked questions about it. I think I was in bed when all this happened. Then the next day there was a day of mourning. Many people still had to compete so there was mixed emotions. One, I want to compete. Two, hell, has it come to this.”
On his own performance, the Tipperary born, Rockwell College graduate was hugely disappointed with his result: “Firstly, I got in on a B standard. My task was to try and throw as close to that as possible in the Pool 1. Twenty guys go out and so many throw over the line and the rest are left to take their second and third throw. I didn’t achieve that.
“It’s like no other competition you’ll be in, in the sense that you’re not competing against anybody else. Your job is to go out there and throw over a mark – over a line. It’s only when you get into the final that you really feel you are trying to beat other people. But I would have had no chance to get into the final.”
After Conway competed in Munich, he returned to finish his college education in the United States, before moving back to Ireland, where he aimed to lead a hammer throwing revival.
“I came back to Ireland with this drive or ambition. I was lucky enough to get fixed up in teaching, that was a solid work situation,” he said.
“I set about then to try to popularise the skill of hammer throwing. Got in touch with a lot of schools and broadened the net and got a lot of people doing it. We got a great response at the time. Underage standards took off in a big way.”
The Olympian also highlights two young throwers as good future prospects for Ireland.
He said: “As we speak here, on Friday 13 July, one of the young lads is competing in the World Junior Championships, and he’s just had a personal best in the hammer – James McCabe, from Dunboyne AC.
“Conor McCullough, the son of the Olympian Conor McCullough senior, was born in America, but has an Irish passport and Irish parentage.
"He was the World Junior champion two years ago, and now he’s decided to throw in his lot and compete for Ireland. He’s very exciting. Had they been taking B standards this time he would be in London for the experience.”
Regarding ways to improve Ireland's performances in track and field, Conway points to coaching as the answer.
“We obviously need more coaches, but I would think that we need more full-time coaches. We need to increase the number of coaches on the ground," he said.
“We’re a bit unfortunate in Ireland in that we don’t have a stepping stone to the Olympics; we have the Europeans. But in Great Britain they have the Commonwealth Games. Here we’re going from domestic championships to almost the top level.”