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50 Years Ago - When John Buckley Beat The Olympic Champion – Guest Article by John Walshe

1969 - John Buckley Beats Olympic Champion Mohammed Gammoudi in Ballincollig

Guest Article by John Walshe

 This article, by John Walshe appeared in The Echo, on March 16th 2019



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Mohammed Gammoudi, winning the Mexico Olympic 5,000m, in 1968 -  Photo: Getty Images

irish runner archive john buckley tullamore aLeader of the Pack - John Buckley leads the 'Peleton' in Tullamore, from the Irish runner Archives


St Patrick’s Day in 1969 fell on a Monday and the weekend was marred by torrential rain and gale-force winds. The Dr Harty Cup final, between Coláiste Chríost Rí and St Finbarr’s, Farranferris, was just one of the many sporting events that fell victim to the weather.

But, despite the conditions, a crowd of around 7,000 gathered in Ballincollig, where the International Military Cross-Country Championships were being staged. Many had travelled to see a man who, just five months previously, had won the 5,000m Gold medal, at the Mexico Olympic Games.

Instead they witnessed an inspirational performance by one of their own, 22-year-old John Buckley, from nearby Blarney, not only led the Irish team to the silver medals, but also notched-up an illustrious victory over that Olympic champion, Tunisian, Mohammed Gammoudi.

Known as the CISM Meeting, the International Military Championship came to Ireland in 1969, and the eight National teams taking part included squads from Tunisia and Morocco, the latter having finished in the top three, for the previous six years.

There was also a prominent team from the United States, selected from all branches of the armed forces. It included former indoor three-mile record holder Tracy Smith from California, and Bill Clark, runner-up in the previous year’s Boston Marathon.

However, there was no doubting the star attraction was the defending champion, Gammoudi. Born in Sidi Ach, Tunisia, he was one of the pioneers of the African distance running revolution. One of the favourites for the 10,000m at those Mexico Olympics, Gammoudi was out-sprinted by Naftali Temu of Kenya, and Mamo Wolde from Ethiopia, leaving him with the Bronze medal.

A few days later, in the final of the 5,000m, three runners were in contention at the bell, with Gammoudi leading Temu and another Kenyan, Kip Keino. The last lap was run at a furious pace, and although the two Kenyans gave charge, Gammoudi held on to his lead to take the Gold.

The Irish challenge for Ballincollig was made up in the main from members of the FCA, as John Buckley explained. “I suppose you could say we were headhunted because of our running talent, I can’t say we did much military training,” he recalls with a smile. “We felt we had a very good team, with the likes of Sean O’Sullivan who was the National champion, Tom O’Riordan, Danny McDaid from Donegal, Kildare-man Jim Timoney, and of course Matt Murphy from Rising Sun.”

At the start of that winter’s cross-country season, Buckley had two main aims - to make the Irish national team for the International (now World) Championships in Glasgow, and to get on the Irish military team for Ballincollig. His training had gone well, clocking up an average of 100 miles a week.

The St Finbarr’s man was in great form coming up to the All-Ireland, but came down with a bad ‘flu the week of the race. Recalling that race of five decades ago, Buckley said he took part against his better judgement: “I ran in the nationals having been dying with the ‘flu the previous week. I should have easily made the Irish team but I finished well down and didn’t make it.”  

One week later, in the trial for the military team, he felt a good deal better and came in third. “I really wanted to prove a point in Ballincollig, so there was a fair bit of pressure coming up to the race,” remembers Buckley. “There was great hype in the build-up, with Gammoudi coming. I had met him two years earlier in Luxembourg, and had my photo taken with him and his brother, who also ran.”

On the Sunday morning when Buckley woke early and heard the rain beating on the window, he was happy. “I had a kind of a reputation, and in my own head as well, that I’d run well in softer going so I was quite happy to see the conditions. I didn’t feel intimidated by the likes of Gammoudi, as I didn’t expect to finish ahead of him. I got away with most of the leaders, the confidence was high and of course we had huge support on the day which gave us all a boost.”

Up front, the Moroccans were well in control, with victory going to 22-year-old unknown Ou Moha Bassou, who defeated his countryman Haddou Jabor by a foot, in a thrilling sprint to the line. Hannachi of Tunisia and Joachim Leiss, the West German holder of the European 1,500m indoor title, finished within three seconds of the winner, to take the third and fourth spots.

The winning time was 32 minutes and 32 seconds, with Buckley crossing the line just 23 seconds later, for a brilliant ninth, two places ahead of his team-mate Sean O’Sullivan, with Gammoudi following in 12th position.

Tom O’Riordan came 15th, Matt Murphy 19th, Jim Timoney 25th, Danny McDaid 26th, another Corkman, Pat O’Connell 42nd, and Eddie Spillane 46th. The Irish had a total of 105 points, giving them the silver medals ahead of Tunisia, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the fancied USA, who never got to grips with the conditions.

“It was one of my most enjoyable and memorable runs ever, and I’ll never forget the atmosphere,” recalls Buckley, now the proprietor of one of Cork’s most recognisable and popular sports shop, John Buckley Sports, on Mulgrave Road, just across teh river from the Opera House.

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Archive photo of John Buckley, in the shadows of Shandon church, just around the corner from his famous Sports Shop


Other Guest Articles by John Walshe


Munster Cross-Country of 1989 – Guest Article by John Walshe


Steeplechase Legends Meet at Antrim International – Guest Article by John Walshe


Aidan Hogan - Ultra-Athlete – Guest Article by John Walshe


RUNNING FOR BETTER – Guest Article by John Walshe


Cork to Cobh 40 Years Ago - Guest Article by John Walshe


Unique National Double for McGraths - Guest Article by John Walshe


Dick Hooper Speaks at St Finbarrs AC Function - Guest Article by John Walshe



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