Tribute to Bob Distall

August 3rd, 2004
by Weeshie Fogarty

Weeshie's historic interview with Irish Gold Medal Olympian winner Bob Tisdall, Los Angles 1932. It was the very last interview Tisdall ever gave as he died shortly after this at his home in Queensland Australia.

The death at his home in Australia last Wednesday July 28th of Bob Tisdall in his 96th year may have gone unnoticed by most sports followers, however we must record that his passing has brought to an end one of the most triumphant and extraordinary eras of Irish sporting success.
A member of the four man Irish Olympic team which competed in Los Angeles in 1932 Bob had the unique record of winning a gold medal in the 400 meters hurdles in a world and Olympic record time of 51.67 seconds, however due to the strange rules in operation at that time he was not credited with those record times as he had knocked the last hurdle on his surge to the tape and into history's pages.

Those August games of "32 in the Los Angeles Coliseum witnessed what was probably the most memorable achievements ever of any group of Irish athletes and a Kerryman was right there in the midst of it all, Dr. Pat O'Callaghan the man from Kanturk won gold in the hammer event and of course our own Eamon Fitzgerald of whom you have compressively read about in this column came fourth in the triple jump, Eamon was also the holder of two senior All Ireland football medals with Kerry.

The final and in my opinion sadly forgotten member of that 1932 team was Michael "Sonny" Murphy from Kinaboy Co Clare who participated in the steeplechase, however the searing Los Angeles heat got the better of the brave Clareman and he collapsed due to heatstroke, he never really recovered from that terrible experience.

Four years later on St. Patrick's day 1936 "Sonny" Murphy died tragically as a very young man, he was buried in Deansgrange cemetery in Dublin where our own Olympian Eamon Fitzgerald is also laid to rest, Clare women Della Maddock re discovered "Sonny's" grave a few years ago, "there wasn't a stick or a stone marking it, it was a disgrace" she said.

And so on Easter Sunday five years ago the final member of that greatest ever Irish Olympic team was ultimately remembered when a headstone was erected at "Sonnys" grave, in attendance were Olympians Ronnie Delaney, Freid Tiedt, Eamon Coughlan, Brendan o Reilly, Harry Perry and many more friends and relations.

Bob Tisdall had an amazing career; in 1931 he became a national figure in England when he won four events in the annual Cambridge- Oxford athletics match, the hurdles, long jump, shot and 440 yards. Amazingly he had to be given two chances to qualify for the Olympics and he wrote a letter himself to General Eoin O'Duffy the man responsible at the time for entries, imploring him to see him in action. Tisdall failed to achieve the qualifying time in the first trial in Croke Park, O Duffy gave him a second chance and Tisdall qualified as he won the National 440 yards hurdles title at the Irish Championship again in Croke Park. The rest is history.

Then last September with the help of the Irish Olympic Council and Sean Hurley of Radio Kerry I interview by phone Bob Tisdall from his home in Queensland, Australia, he was about to celebrate his 96th birthday, and my interview with him was in conjunction with my Terrace Talk programme on Eamon Fitzgerald. He was then the oldest living Olympic Gold medal winner, in all probability and I believe I would correct, this was the very last radio interview given by the great man.

So for the sporting records hereunder is the transcript what is now a historic very brief glimpse of what life was like for one of Ireland's greatest sons.

Q; Is it long since you were back in Ireland
A; O yes, away back in 1984, I was on my way to the Olympics and I stopped off in Ireland.

Q; Your memories of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angles.
A; O yes, vivid memories, those things you never forget, we had a wonderful time really, it was the first time they built a village for the athletes, Pat o Callaghan and I shared a hut. Douglas Fairbanks he was a big shot in Hollywood came and had a chat with us.

Q; What were your memories of winning your gold medal.
A; I did write about it one time, and the more I talk about it the more I forget it.

Q; There were just four athletes on that Irish team which included Eamon.
A; Eamon was older than what we were as far as I can remember, a tall lanky fellow, very good company, I wouldn't say he was jovial but he had a since of humor, he wouldn't go out of his way to make you laugh, he got injured on his way out, that's right.

Q; And Dr. Pat O'Callaghan won his second gold medal.
A; Yes, it was a great moment for Irish sport, Pat o Callaghan and I were competing at the same time, he was throwing the hammer when I was running on the track, when I had won my gold medal I went straight across to see Pat competing, I don't know if you have heard this story. I asked how was he doing and he replied, I cant get in the revolutions in the circle with the hammer because the spikes on my shoes are too long, I just got a file from someone, would you help me file down my spikes.? So from the finish of my race I sat there filing down Pat's spikes, everyone was wondering what was going on, it was really amusing and he got up and won the gold medal.

Q; Your memories of Eamon, did you know that he had won All Ireland football medals with Kerry.
A; I'm not certain about that, no.

Q; Were you aware that he was a Kerry man.
A; Oh yes.

Q; Have you any friends in Kerry.
A; No, it's too long ago. I've lost touch with everyone, but I do remember the great Casey brothers of Sneem, all dead now I think, I've got a cousin down in Bantry, he lives in Glengarriffe, I write to him occasionally and sadly that's the only contact I have with Ireland now.

Q; Did winning gold medal change your life in anyway.
A; No, it didn't actually.

Q; How do you like living in Australia.
A; It's a lovely country I've got a nice place here, I used to grow ginger but the market collapsed so I'm just living here retired on a pension now., I do a lot of gardening, I grow all the family veg. It helps to keep me fit.

Q; Do you me asking what age you are now. (This was Oct. 03.)
A; I'll be 96 on Friday.

Q; Do you think the likes of Eamon Fitzgerald is forgotten Bob.
A; No he hasn't. It's along way back and you can't expect everyone to remember him

Q; What does it mean to represent your country in the Olympics.
A; Terrific, your country is your team, and the team spirit there is colossal of course, the Olympic games will always be like that and they bring the world together.

Q; What would you say to the people of Kerry that are listening to this programme about Eamon Fitzgerald, how should he be remembered.
A; Well I can only say he was one of the nicest people I have met and sorry I didn't know more about him but it's so long ago.

Q; How many in family have you.
A: I've got two sons and a daughter and another daughter in Africa from my first marriage, and I have three grand daughters, there's 40 years between the youngest and oldest.

Q; What county did you come from.
A; My family has been in Ireland for over 400 years, Bantry my father came from and I was born in Ceylon, I was brought up in Ireland and had my first job when I was 19 running a passenger boat on the Shannon.

Q; Have you any idea how many Irish titles you won.
A; I ran in the Irish Championships once and won the hurdles.

Q; What happened after Los Angles, did your career go on for long more.
A; O yes, I moved to South Africa and was president of the Athletic Association there and in Johnsonburg I organized four different teams along the gold reef and every other we had a championship, I ran a lot myself and took part in four events a day.

W; Thank you Bob for talking to us here in Ireland.
B; Thank you for remembering me and God bless you.

Bob Tisdall's passing marks the end of one of the most remarkable eras in Irish sport and sadly now all that magnificent four man Olympic Irish team of 1932 are gone to their eternal reward.

The great Bob Tisdall blazed a captivating trail
ONLY three Irish persons have won gold medals in track and field events in the Olympic Games - Bob Tisdall, Pat O'Callaghan and Ronnie Delaney. Of those three, the one who fascinated me most was Bob Tisdall because I was ignorant of his feats as an athlete.

I had to wait to read his obituaries in the papers, following his recent death in Brisbane, Australia, at the age of 97, to find out what sort of person Bob Tisdall really was.

His ability at athletics secured him gold in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. One thing I learned straight away was that he defied all logic to secure his gold medal - he had that extra special something that enabled him to get that all too elusive prize.

It is well worth recalling in detail how he got to LA in the first instance and here is how he made it:

Robert Morton Newburgh Tisdall was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1907, to parents intensely proud of their Irish origins. His father, William, hailed from Bantry and his mother, Meta Morton, grew up in Nenagh. Appropriately, it was in Nenagh, and later Dromineer, that the young Robert spent his formative years.

Not until he arrived at Cambridge University did he have the opportunity of indulging his passion for sport, and college records show that in the annual 'colours' match with Oxford in 1931 he won four events, the 440 yards, 120 yards hurdles, shot-putt and long jump competitions.
The winning figures in each instance were, however, far from inspiring. And outside intervarsity sport he remained largely unknown here until early 1932 when he wrote to General Eoin O'Duffy, president of the Irish Olympic Council, requesting that he be selected for the Irish team going to the Los Angeles Games.

O'Duffy later recalled that he was both astounded and impressed by the "cheek" of the young graduate, more so since Tisdall indicated that he wished to compete in the 400 meters hurdles, an event in which, on his own admission, he had competed just once.
O'Duffy responded by inviting him to participate in a trial race in Dublin and Tisdall's reaction to that show of faith was no less brave. Although recently married, he promptly resigned his job in London and took himself off to an orchard in Sussex where, in a disused railway carriage, he worked on honing his body for the biggest test of his career.

Without even the semblance of a track, he trained on home-made hurdles. O'Duffy decreed that he would have to run the trial in Croke Park in 55 seconds or less, the time recorded by the American Johnny Gibson in the Tailteann Games at the same venue four years earlier, and arranged for Andy Nolan, a member of the Garda club, to run against him.

The best Tisdall could do on the day was 56.2 seconds, and he left the stadium deeply disillusioned. But O'Duffy's admiration for the sheer effrontery of the man persisted, and he arranged for another trial to be held in conjunction with the Irish championships.
Tisdall once more retired to his railway carriage, and his efforts paid off. With Nolan again in opposition, he raced around Croke Park in 54.2 seconds, and suddenly Los Angeles beckoned. He set off with the Irish team on July 3 for the 14-day land and sea journey to California, arriving at the Olympic village in the Baldwin Hills overlooking Los Angeles in a state of near exhaustion.

The remaining 14 days of his preparation for the Olympic Games were odd - and distinctly worrying for General O'Duffy. He spent most of his time in bed and, when he was not sleeping or resting in his room, he was invariably stretched out in the sun.

Now, when the die was cast in earnest and he had to perform, he mesmerized them all winning his first heat in 54.8 seconds and two hours later won the second semi-final in 52.8 seconds. In the final Bob Tisdall rose to the first of the 10 hurdles in the lead and was never headed. He was so far ahead jumping the last that he couldn't believe what was happening.

"I experienced a strange sense of loneliness" he recorded afterwards, "I began to wonder if the others had fallen over".

This probably caused a lapse in his concentration and caused Tisdall to knock the last hurdle and miss out on a record - at that time knocking a hurdle precluded him from claiming a world record.

He had done enough to join the immortality stakes and, now 70 years later, we are basking in his glory. Thanks Bob Tisdall for blazing a trail that still captivates us all.

Radio Kerry - The Voice of the Kingdom