James Sullivan has been having a chat with Maeve Kyle, OBE, Ireland’s first ever female Olympian, about her experiences in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo, about life in Ireland during the 1950s and about the upcoming London Olympics.
Maeve Kyle is a former athlete from County Kilkenny, Ireland. In 1956 she became the first woman to represent Ireland in the Olympic Games, paving the way for future female representation. She competed in 3 Olympic Games: 1956 and 1960 in the 100m and 200m, and 1964 where she reached the semi finals of both the 400m and 800m. In 1966 she claimed the bronze medal at the European Indoor Championships. In addition to her distnguished athletics career, she was capped 58 times for the Irish hockey team. Since retiring from competitive sport she has been heavily involved in coaching, both with her club, Ballymena & Antrim AC, and country, being selected to travel to the Sydney Olympics as a coach of the Irish team.
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to the running review. So to begin, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Maeve: My Dada was the headmaster of Kilkenny College, the oldest college in Ireland, founded in 1538, with Dean Swift, Admiral Beattie, Congreve and Berkely among many prestigious ‘old boys’. My first athletic competition was in June 1939 when I was allowed to compete against the U13 boys, coming second. I improved to first the following year when I was 10 years old! I loved all sports and was successful at my Dublin boarding school sports days as well as playing hockey very regularly.
James: Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s Ireland was a very different place to what it is today. Can you give an insight into the attitude that existed at the time with regards women competing in sport?
Maeve: There were very limited competitive opportunities for women in sport, apart from hockey, tennis, croquet or other socially acceptable activities. The Catholic Church had a conservative view of the female role, not unlike certain conservative religions of today. In a largely catholic country this was the accepted norm, but the famous promoter Billy Morton (of Santry Stadium fame) put on a meet in 1948 at Lansdowne Road. Fanny Blankers-Koen was the star in the field of local girls. I was not involved but ran in another promotion at the same venue in 1949, coming second in the 100m to my hockey team mate Joan O’Reilly, but I did win the high jump.
James: You competed in your first Olympic Games in Melbourne 1956. Can you describe the experience? What sort of challenges did an Irish athlete in the 1950’s have to face in order to compete in an Olympic Games on the other side of the planet?
Maeve: I returned from holiday in Austria to hear on the radio that I had been selected for Melbourne. Shock, horror!! How would I ever be fit in time? How would I raise the required £200 to ensure participation? And the biggest ask of all, who would care for our beloved baby daughter? All of these problems where resolved by a totally supportive family, club, friends and community. Getting fit was just the usual round of sprint training, weights, gym, roads and hills. There was no track but a good cricket outfield which was not too soggy. There were no tracks of any kind in our area and only one cinder track in Belfast some 30 miles away.
My salvation was my superb coach. Hugely knowledgeable, firm but gentle, and well able to handle the stroppy, highly strung athlete he had created. Sean was either my coach or my husband, rarely both. I accepted and respected his knowledge and belief in me and so I just got on with whatever had to be done. As an international hockey player for some nine consecutive years fitness was not a problem.
James: By competing at the 1956 Olympics you became the first ever Irish female Olympian. What was the general reaction in Ireland at the time towards this? Were you bothered by some peoples’ opinions?
Maeve: Those who knew my family and my friends and most of my community were delighted for Sean and me, but also excited at the door that opened for women in international sport. There were a few critical voices, mostly older married women. One seriously critical letter in the Irish Times about “this disgrace to Irish womanhood” anon, needless to say.
James: In total you competed in three Olympic Games 1956, 1960 and 1964. Which one do you look back at with the most pride and fondest memories?
Maeve: On reflection I was excited by the totally new experience. The long haul journeys, new team mates, the multi-sporting excellence, amazing facilities, Olympic Village life, an incredible number of new (and still) friends, world class stars, incredible food. Just about everything was exciting. But for me the most emotive aspect was the unbelievable crowd of ex-pats who welcomed us in Melbourne with gifts, flowers and tears. It was only on my return to Melbourne in 2006 that I learnt through a radio broadcast that these people were children from both Ireland and the UK who had been sent to Australia in the ‘30s to work because their families could not keep them. Our arrival in 56 was their first opportunity of contact from home. Remember there were no jet flights, TV or computers in those days. Contact with home was not easy.
Sean was with me in Rome which made it special, and then came Tokyo with new events for women, the 400m and 800m. I had to have a go! All three Olympics as a competitor were special in different ways. I got the most satisfaction and the most disappointment in Tokyo, reaching the semi finals in both my events and knowing if I had been selected earlier I would have been much better prepared, probably making either or both finals.
James: You competed at the top level in 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m. Which one of these events did you enjoy the most and for what reasons?
Maeve: For actual competition, the 400m. Mentally I never really adjusted to not having my own bit of territory in which to run. I love the 400m. It requires careful preparation, both mental and physical. It requires the ability to plan and to stick to that plan in running the race. Sean was brilliant in this aspect of preparation. I knew I should have been in the final in Tokyo but I had too many races to prove I was good enough to be selected in spite of numerous qualifying performances.
James: Since retiring from competitive athletics you have dedicated your life to coaching, particularly at Ballymena & Antrim Athletic Club, a club which you co-founded. What is your motive for being so active in this regard?
Maeve I made a decision in Melbourne in 1956 that I would learn how to be a really good coach so that I could help some other young athletes to aspire to and maybe achieve the Olympic dream. I have been so fortunate that my dream for several of them has been realised.
James: You were selected to travel to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as a coach. How did this experience differ to your previous Olympics as an athlete? How much have the Games changed from when you were competing?
Maeve: I loved every minute of this wonderful experience! It was a great thrill, especially for a woman to be recognised as a high performance coach and given such a responsibility. The three Irish relay teams were made up of a cross section of club athletes who worked their tails off to be the best they could. We achieved two national records and the Men’s 4x100m record of 39.26 seconds still stands. But more importantly relays became an acceptable part of Olympic selection.
James: You are seen as a pioneer in Ireland with regards women competing in sport, and in recent years Sonia O’Sullivan, Catherina McKiernan, Gillian O’Sullivan, Derval O’Rourke and Olive Loughnane have all achieved success at the highest level in athletics. When you see the number of women competing in sport in general and athletics in particular now compared to the 1950s, do you take satisfaction that you helped develop this change? Going forward what needs to be done to get more and more women competing in sport in Ireland?
Maeve: Women need to be more involved in the organisation of sport, at every level. Because sport historically was what active men did after work, sport has largely been organised and run by men. Women now compete on equal terms, but when they finish, settle down, marry, raise a family as well as hold down a job, there is little time left for voluntary work, especially with the time and money needed to qualify for such a task. Although the world is a much more equal place it is still very difficult to balance everyone’s needs in a young family. It can be done, with careful planning, and an unselfish partnership. I could NOT have achieved anything in my long, happy and very busy life without the total support from Sean, allowing me to be wife, mother, teacher, athlete, coach, business women, never mind achieving performances that I thought might be unrealistic.
James: How would you rate Ireland’s chances at the 2012 Olympic Games?
Maeve: These Games are in our back yard but happily not the cost! Seriously, we have some very talented young athletes and will have at least 15-20 A standard athletes in London, with the possibility of 3-4 finalists. These are only optimistic guesses, one of my joys of being an Olympic bystander. The Olympic world is now huge, making it harder to win medals and possibly allowing for more upsets. There are actually very few medals available for such large entries in our sport.
James: Do you still follow international track & field regularly? Which current athlete do you enjoy watching the most?
Maeve: YES! And I love Jessica Ennis. She always looks as if she is enjoying her challenge, and always competes with a lovely smile.
James: What one piece of advice would you give to an athlete or runner, regardless of age or ability?
Maeve: Enjoy your competition, win or lose! Remember next time will be different, so always learn from each experience, good or bad. For me, most track and field events are a personal challenge to do as much as you can in your goal, plan, your performance and in your assessment of all three. No other sport is so dependent on the individual concerned in the performance. Timing and tapes are inanimate objects.
James: Thank you very much for your time Maeve. All the best for 2012
Maeve: My pleasure!
Dr Maeve Kyle OBE – Factfile
58 Irish caps.
Olympics: 1956, 1960, 1964.
100y – 10.8 (1964)
200m – 24.4 (1960)
400m – 54.5 (1964)
800m – 2.10.7 (1962).
1953; 1959 World All Star Hockey team
1999 UK Coach of the Year (Athletics)
2004 Ballymena Borough Hall of Fame
2005 Ulster Athletic Association Hall of Fame
2006 Honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster.
2006 Lifetime Achievement Award
at UK Coaching Awards in London.
2006 Irish hockey’s Top 10 Hall of Fame.
2007 Independent Newspapers’ Hall of Fame
2008: RTÉ/The Irish Sports Council’s Hall of Fame.
2008: UK Athletics Club of the Year
for the Ballymena and Antrim Athletics Club.
2009: Belfast Telegraph/Sport NI Hall of Fame
2010: Trinity College (DUCAC) Hall of Fame