Looking at the action from the London 2012 Olympics I was reminded of a short story that I wrote a little while ago. It was set in 1976, during the Montreal Olympics, and features Eamonn ‘Cocker’ Coghlan , sometimes known as ‘The Chairman of the Boards’, running in the 1500 metres final. I am sure it was exciting being in the stadium watching the race, but nothing like the goings-on in a small bar in Dingle, County. Oh, what a night! Enjoy.
Come On Cocker!
The morning air was still and warm – again. It had been the same for weeks, and although uncomfortable at times, nobody was complaining. After all, such fine weather in Ireland was really something to enjoy, and the summer of 1976 was truly memorable. Whether it was caused by increased sunspot activity or the result of some crazy, Russian scientific experiment gone wrong, nobody really cared and the country smiled like never before.
After breakfast outside our tent, in a golden field about a mile from Glengariff, we set off for the golf course. We spent the next four hours under a blue sky and were burnt by a dry, steady breeze. The clubs we hired had seen better days and one of them lost its head when I hit a shot to the green on the second hole. The dirty, chrome lump spiralled slowly against the blue canvas – it was pathetic and the source of some smart jibes for the rest of the holidays. ‘I hope Cocker doesn’t do that tonight,’ quipped Paddy, setting the others off. I agreed, silently, and rammed the broken club into my bag.
Later that night we were part of a nervous crowd that waited expectantly, in a small pub, for the pictures from the Montreal Olympics to come through. After what seemed like an age we saw the runners jogging back and forth as they loosened up. The semi-final of the 1500 metres was about to begin and our man, Eamonn ‘Cocker’ Coughlan, was the favourite. He was Ireland’s first real sporting superstar and the excitement that his performances had generated was palpable. ‘Ireland expects’ was the headline on most newspapers and on the night Cocker didn’t fail. He won easily and we shouted his name until the roof almost lifted off the pub. Later, much later, we happily staggered back to the campsite under a moonlit sky and dreamt of gold medals before drifting off to sleep.
The next few days were as before, hot and humid. We made our way along the coast, swimming and sightseeing in the hot, tingling air. We visited the ruins of old castles and monasteries that lay eerily silent. In an old graveyard butterflies fluttered gently about us, pausing now and then on top of cracked, lichen-covered headstones. The peacefulness was sharply at odds with the mayhem of watching Cocker the other night, and we moved away lost in thought and nervously thinking of the final. It was going to be a big night, and our thoughts drifted west, across the Atlantic, to our man in the green vest.
We drove on and arrived in Dingle on the day of the final and pitched our tent just outside the town. After a quick visit to the local butcher where Aidan bought steaks and onions, we ate dinner outside our tent and talked about Cocker’s chances. The conversation went back and forth excitedly, but finally we all agreed that our man was going ‘to do the business’. It was a nervy time and none of us could talk of anything else before we headed into town to watch history being made. ‘Come on Cocker,’ we shouted and sprinted playfully along the dusty road with the strains of ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ belting out from a nearby tent.
The streets were packed as people chatted noisily, discussing the race. We worked our way through the crowd before finally squeezing into a lively and expectant pub that was packed tight. At this stage it was standing room only and we slowly worked our way to the bar and got a bird’s eye view of the television. With an hour to go before the big event the noise level was deafening as the new athletics experts discussed the only topic on everyone’s lips.
‘Course he’ll do it,’ said a guy beside me a confident grin showing from behind the two creamy pints he was passing back to a friend. I nodded agreement, let him pass, and caught the barman’s eye.
The excitement grew intensely with sporadic bursts of ‘Come on Cocker’ filling the smoky bar. The atmosphere was electric and the crowd went wild when the TV screen switched to show the racetrack and the image of Coughlan in his green vest. More shouts and whoops of encouragement rent the air and the crowd seemed to push forward to be nearer their hero.
The camera moved slowly along showing each runner in turn and we cheered when Coughlan grinned. Soon, not soon enough, the runners took their marks at the starting line – everything was ready to go.
The pub fell silent.
Everyone seemed to stop breathing as the runners leaned forward, shook the last ounce of tension from the hands, and waited.
There was aloud explosion and the crowd jumped as one when the starter fired his gun.
What happened next was truly unbelievable; a moment of high farce if ever there was one! As the runners took the first bend a guy sitting beneath the television, stood up heading for the toilet, and stumbled backwards. He stuck out his hand to steady himself but only managed to knock the TV switch to off in the process. The crowd was stunned, looking at the blank screen and wondering if the world had ended. Howls and screams of fury rang out in the madness before the pub owner scampered athletically over the counter, stretched full length over a group of shaking heads, and hit the button. Slowly, desperately slowly, the picture came back and the race continued and Cocker ran like a man possessed. We shouted, screamed, cried out and his name as if our lives depended on it, but sadly it was not enough. Our man was denied, but not before he left us an unforgettable memory of that long, hot summer.