80 YEARS ON... RONNIE'S STILL RUNNING STRONG
Thinking positively and exercising body and mind are keys to longevity Ronnie Delany tells Fiona Dillon on his 80th
Sporting hero Ronnie Delany may just have turned 80 but he shows no signs of slowing down.
His Olympic athletics victory remains one of greatest ever Irish sporting achievements.
Ronnie became a household name when, in December 1956, he sprinted home to win the gold medal in the 1,500m Olympic final in Melbourne, setting a new Olympic record in the process at the age of 21.
It was a win that caught the imagination of a nation, and made him a sporting icon.
The fact that an outsider could storm ahead of the favourites and win at such an elite level brought a great lift to Ireland in the depressed 50s.
Ronnie told the Herald during yesterday's birthday celebrations that golfing and swimming are his sports of choice these days.
He plays at Foxrock Golf Club and he goes swimming in the pool at the Fitzwilliam Lawn and Tennis Club.
Ronnie celebrated his 80th birthday with his family, and is thankful he is hale and hearty.
Among the many people who flooded his phone with messages yesterday was James Hanley, the artist who painted the 8ft portrait of Ronnie that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.
Reflecting on reaching the landmark age, he said he didn't think there is any secret.
"I think it's a gift. I think attitude is terribly important. Things like thinking positively and exercising your brain," he said.
"I do exercise my brain, I do exercise my body, and I am fortuitous in that I am surrounded by the love of my family," he said.
The sporting icon marked his birthday with a special meal with his family, including his 14 grandchildren. They went to Bistro One in Foxrock village in a party of 24 last night.
"Mark Shannon is the proprietor there. He is our local restaurateur and we go back a long, long time. We celebrate all our great family events with him," said Ronnie.
"I pre-selected the menu to try and cover the younger children, and the not so young, and the old like myself."
Among the presents he received was a flight to Spain in July from his wife Joan.
Reflecting on the passing of the decades, he said that it was extraordinary to think he was the Olympic champion when he was 21.
"I am now 80. So this is almost 60 years later. I have been blessed with good health and I take that as a gift from God and every day I thank him for my health and I have never had any serious issues with it. As long as you have that, life is great.
"I also am lucky in that I try to keep myself very active. I do a lot of charitable work now, including with Friends of the Elderly, Age Action, and DEBRA Ireland.
"It is my pleasure to voluntarily do ad campaigns," he said.
He also does work with the Irish Lung Health Alliance, which promotes healthy lungs
And as if that wasn't enough, he is also President of the Irish Olympians Association.
Meanwhile, the Villanova University in Pennsylvania has a special place in his heart.
It is where he went in 1954, and trained under legendary coach Jumbo Elliot, before his Olympic win.
It was an exciting time for the young man born March 6, 1935, near the town of Arklow in Co Wicklow
He is now the President of the Villanova alumni.
Other track legends to graduate from there include Eamonn Coghlan and Sonia O'Sullivan.
"The Americans have an expression: 'reaching out', I have coined one, 'reaching back'.
"What we are trying to do is reach back to Villanova."
This has seen increased links being forged between the university and Irish colleges.
When he retired from running at 26, he was still involved in sports, playing rugby, tennis and squash.
"The year I retired, I held the world record for the indoor mile, I had broken that three times, and much to my delight, I was the world university champion at 800m, and I was ranked fourth in the world the year I retired at 800m, so I got out at the top."
He has enjoyed the respect of the Irish public for his achievements down through the decades.
"The public have been extraordinarily courteous to me," said Ronnie.
"Yesterday, I got a lovely letter from the Lord Mayor Christy Burke inviting us up for afternoon tea in the Mansion House," he said.
Ronnie is still in touch with athletes from the era when he was a professional sportsman.
"Many of them are still alive thank God, and we still are close personal friends.
"There is a fellowship there that is very special and I'd like to think it is still there in sport today, and I am not absolutely sure, but it was certainly there back in the fifties," he said.
Meanwhile, the future for sports in this country is bright, he believes.
"I don't think that sport has ever been as popular. On the streets, you see people walking, running and cycling, and taking part in marathons has become really popular. There has never been such a general interest as there is now in sport," he commented.
At the elite end of sport, we are very lucky in terms of our success sports like rugby, athletics and boxing, he pointed out.