Olympic History: Rhode Island Training Helps Irish Runner Win 1984 Silver Medal

Ken KraetzerCorrespondent IIAugust 11, 2012

John Treacy leads Charlie Spedding for Silver in 1984 Olympic Marathon (CO Providence College)
John Treacy leads Charlie Spedding for Silver in 1984 Olympic Marathon (CO Providence College)

In 1984, John Treacy of Ireland, a graduate of Providence College in Rhode Island, surprised the running world by winning the Marathon Silver Medal in the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles.

In Ireland, Treacy became a national hero for a small country which has not won that many Olympic medals and cherishes those won by their native sons and daughters.  Treacy is well remembered in Rhode Island for his success as an undergraduate at Providence and latter in the Olympics.

We all have favorite Olympic moments from watching the games which provide milestones to our own lives.  Seeing John Treacy emerge from the pack of elite runners in the 1984 Olympic Marathon has to be my favorite moment of the Summer games because he used to live in my dorm building at Providence, a converted hospital building named Fennell Hall.

In college under the coaching of Bob Amato, John Treacy earned an impressive record in cross country as an All-American in 1975, 1976 and 1977 at the fall NCAA Championships.  In 1978 during his senior year, he was the NCAA indoor three mile champion. 

While a college runner he also won the 1978 World Cross Country Championship held in Scotland and the 1979 World Championship held in his native Ireland.  At age 20, John was the youngest athlete at that time to win the world cross country championship.

John was gracious, polite and did not seek to bring attention to himself.  He was a good student who would receive an NCAA Academic Scholarship to study for an MBA at Providence.

One time I walked up the hill to a class in the main part of the PC campus with John and I asked what was new; he said, "Just came back from London."  I asked what he had been doing and he said, "Running a race."  Of course I asked, how did you do?  He simply said, "Won the race."


In the late winter of 1978, the Northeast had one of the worst blizzards in history with 35 inches of snow in Providence on a Monday, closing the school and the city for the balance of the week as people were rescued from cars and everyone tried to dug out.

Dave Gavitt's Friar basketball team missed most of its practice time that week which culminated in a matchup against North Carolina and Dean Smith downtown.  Everyone had to walk to the game, which is long remembered by Providence fans, but that is another story.


My dorm that year was Dore Hall which had back windows overlooking a small wooden track with banks that the cross country runners used to practice on before running indoor meets.  This was just before the school built its first field house with an indoor track. 

During the middle of the week when it was forbidden to take a car out on a city street, John Treacy was out there shoveling snow on that old wooden track clearing a path through 30 plus inches of snow so he would have a place to run and prepare for his next race. 

From such moments of dedication and discipline are Olympic moments born.

Representing Ireland, John Treacy ran in the 1980 Olympics but did not medal in the 10K.  The accounts are he did soul searching and began to realize he might never have the speed to win the middle distance events, but the longer events might hold potential. 

In 1983, I visited John and his wife on a trip to Dublin.  They met me for an hour or so even though John had to head off the next day for a race.  While in Waterford Ireland with some other Providence friends we watched highlights of the race on the local news.  John Treacy was still an Olympic hopeful in Ireland.


In 1984, I remember trying to follow John's preparation for the Olympics in Los Angeles, most of what I heard was about his preparation for the 10K.  When the Olympics started I actually sent him a Western Union telegram wishing him success, now that really dates me. He must have received the telegram because a few days later in the mailbox was an official LA Olympic postcard signed by John, thanking me for the note.

The Olympic 10K race came and went with John having a disappointing race.  It appeared his legs might not have the speed for the world class standards of the middle distance event.

On the last day of the Olympics is the Marathon, one of the Iconic events representing the story of the ancient Greek messenger who ran back many miles to his commander to report the results of a battle then dropped dead of exhaustion. 

In 1984, the Olympic stadium was the Memorial Coliseum that was built for the 1932 Olympics and had played host to the NFL Rams and UCLA and USC football games.  Like the facade at Yankee Stadium, the Coliseum had a row of arches at the top of the east end of the bowl which provided a sense of grandeur.


When the race was previewed, a host of top runners from around the world were profiled.  This was before runners from east Africa emerged in the event.  The race was billed as one of the best fields in marathon history. Included in the field were Australia's Rob de Castella, New Zealand's Rod Dixon, Japan's Toshihiko Seko and the US world record holder at the time, Alberto Salazar.


When the marathon began on that summer Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, the cameras followed the lead pack of runners as they passed through the many scenic areas of the city.  This was before the Rodney King incident and other economic events showed that not everyone lived a glamorous life in Los Angeles.


About eleven miles into the race, I spotted him.  John Treacy had entered the Marathon, and he was keeping up with the lead pack of runners.  I almost hit the ceiling of my apartment yelling "Go John."

The race progressed and one by one the big name runners fell out of contention.  John just moved up in the lead pack.  With about five miles left it was down to John Treacy and a few other runners.  The race approached downtown LA and the Olympic stadium near the USC campus, the 100,000 spectators assembling to watch the closing ceremonies viewed the race's progress on the scoreboard monitors which were new innovations at the time. 

As the lead runners approached the stadium there was a similar level of energy that greeted Joan Benoit, the American from Maine who had won the women's marathon the week before.  There is extraordinary respect all fans have for athletes who run over 24 miles using every ounce of energy in them to compete.

John entered the stadium behind Carlos Lopes, a runner from Portugal who developed a lead, but close to Charlie Spedding whom he would battle for the silver medal.  Entering the outside entrance of the Coliseum and through the long tunnel, I worried about a fall.  Out into the bright sunlight and onto the Olympic track with the amazing view and sound coming from the huge crowd. 


John made a kick in the last lap around the track and finished second with a time of 2:09.56 seconds. Run and Jump recalls the race and provides a clip to the live call of Irish sports commentator Jimmy Magee who mentions the names of previous Irish runners who had won medals at the Olympics.  

I have to imagine thousands back in Ireland stayed up to watch and cheer the race.  Still one of Ireland's great Olympic moments, it was also a great moment for Providence College in Rhode island which closely follows the exploits of its native and college athletes when they emerge onto the big stages.


The next day, I picked up what might have been a late edition of The New York Times, which would update editions during the day the way websites do today.  In the sports page was a panoramic view of the medal presentation for the Marathon with the picture of the three medalists on one huge monitor, their names and counties on one scoreboard, with the arches and Olympic flame still lit in the middle.  What a scene that was captured.

Later I ordered two copies of the photo from the paper and gave one to John when I saw him in New York later that year.  A few years later, a film crew went to John's house to do a profile.  They stated the segment by focusing in on the photo of John Treacy on the Olympic medal stand with the Olympic flame burning behind him.  It was Ireland's first Olympic track medal in 28 years.

In a fall 1984 article in the Providence alumni magazine, according to writer Ann M. Manchester, Treacy credited training in Rhode Island for his success:

When I returned to Ireland in 1980, my running career took a downturn.  I went from being a world class athlete to being a good Irish national runner..But when I came back here to Rhode Island in October, and trained with my group, my career took off again.

John Treacy has gone on the Chief Executive officer position with the Irish Sports Council responsible for the growth of sports programs in his native Ireland.  I have to imagine he will watching the Marathon in London and urging on the runners in this Olympic race.  Many back home in Ireland and in Rhode Island will remember with pride his run in the Marathon of the XXIII Olympiad that sunny day in Los Angeles in 1984. 

John Treacy's run in Los Angeles inspired me to train to run the New York City Marathon in 1989 and 1990.   Watching the Olympics is always special, it is bittersweet when they are over, but the memory of seeing one of your friends do well you remember always.  


Many thanks to the article written by Ann M. Manchester which fills in a number of details of this story. 

Ken Kraetzer is a 1979 Providence College graduate who covers West Point football and Iona basketball for WVOX 1460 AM and Sons of the American Legion radio.