Who knew Ireland had sprinters?

As the dust settles a week after the euphoria of Ireland’s success in the European Athletics Championships in Rome, some people have posed that rhetorical question. Maybe it’s a bit tongue in cheek – Rhasidat Adeleke’s name now rolls off the national tongue as easily as Sonia O’Sullivan’s!


The dust may settle temporarily given it’s just six weeks until the start of the 2024 Paris Olympics. One thing is certain, the hype will continue to build.


Ireland, like most athletics nations has a long history of sprinters. Reflecting on just two athletes from the last hundred years may help place current success in historical context, and recognise those who have made their mark over the years.

One hundred years ago Kiltimagh native Sean Lavan (1898-1973) competed in the 200 metres at the 1924 Summer Olympics and the 1928 Summer Olympics.

His sporting career began at training college, where he represented De La Salle Waterford at Gaelic football and boxing. After his teacher training he took up his first post at Cloongullane NS near Swinford in 1919. He was a member of the Mayo senior Gaelic football team (1918–24), winning two Connacht senior championships, and is credited with introducing the toe-to-hand solo run into Gaelic football in the early 1920s. (No, he’s not responsible for the handpass epidemic!). An accomplished handball player, his all round sporting abilities included rugby, soccer, and athletics.


In 1923 he entered UCD to study medicine, qualifying in 1929, and following a period of post-graduate study in the USA, he returned to Ireland in 1931.

While at UCD he became a prominent athlete. He won fifteen national athletics championships, at 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, 120 hurdles, 220 hurdles, and 440 hurdles.

At the 1924 Olympic games in Paris he represented Ireland in the 400m and 200m metre sprints, just missing a place in the final of the latter race. He captained the Irish team in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, again competing in 200m and 400m.

At the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 he was medical officer to the Irish team. At those games Ronnie Delany won gold in 1500 metres – Ireland’s last Olympic track gold …until !?


Maeve Kyle was was born in Urlingford, Co Kilkenny in 1928.

She burst onto the scene in 1956 when it was finally seen as acceptable for  women to compete in Track and Field. *

Maeve Kyle paved the way for the future generations as the first woman to represent Ireland in the Olympics

Up until 1956, no Irish woman had ever represented Ireland in Track and Field at an Olympic Games. The perception of a woman’s role in society was very much confined to getting married and staying at home to become a housewife.

Maeve Kyle paved the way for the future generations and has been a life long role model for Irish women athletes.

She was the only woman on the 18-strong Irish team in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Maeve Kyle set the bar for women athletes when she competed in the 100m and 200m in both the 1956 Melbourne and 1960 Rome Olympics.

She became Ireland’s first triple Olympian in Tokyo 1964 when she reached the semi-finals of both the 400m and 800m.

She took bronze in the 400m at the 1966 European Indoor Athletics Championships in Dortmund running 57.3.

In 1977 Maeve Kyle won four gold medals in the W45 category at the World Masters Championship in 100m, 400m, high jump, and long jump. She has held World Masters records in the W40 category for the 100m (12.00 ) and 400m (55.30), in the W45 category for the 100m (12.50 ), and in the W50 category for the long jump at 5.04m.

* For a more complete appreciation of Maeve Kyle’s achievements read: https://www.hersport.ie/athletics/maeve-kyle-irelands-first-ever-female-olympian-15227


Over the last century, women athletes have fought for their rightful place in the spotlight.

In 1924 two Irish women competed in tennis in the Paris Olympics. In 1928 five Irish women (four in Arts Competitions! and one in swimming) competed in a controversially restricted programme at the Amsterdam Olympic Games.

Indeed in that year an Irish Times editorial on ‘women athletes’ on 4 May supported comments by Pope Pius XI on the subject. While traditional forms of sport for women, such as tennis, golf and swimming were deemed acceptable, the paper said “many girls are devoting themselves to public sports which demand violent exertion and sometimes, it would seem, a notable scantiness of clothing . . . These performances are done before crowds of male spectators”.

What would they have made of today’s athletics sporting attire?

At the 1928 Amsterdam Games, women were allowed to compete in five track and field events, while men had 22. The longest women’s race was 800 metres.

That 800m race would end up threatening future competitive prospects after news reports erroneously focused more on the athletes’ exhaustion at the finish.

Between 1928 and 1932 a debate raged on sporting prowess and femininity.  Subsequently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC)  and the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) voted to delete the 800m from the program.  It would not be seen again in Olympic competition for thirty-two years when it reappeared at the 1960 games in Rome.

And the women’s marathon was only first introduced in the schedule in Los Angeles 1984.


In conclusion, let’s not forget some of the other Irish sprinters who achieved success over recent years and like Sean Lavan and Maeve Kyle paved the way to Rome and Paris 2024: 


Gina Apke-Moses, Michelle Carey, Joanne Cuddihy, Emily Maher, Kelly Proper, and Karen Shinkins…also Michelle Walsh-Carroll was mould-breaking sprinter athlete. She won 31 national titles between 1977 and 1995, mostly for the 100m, 200m and 400m but also in the 800m. Her Irish 100m record of 11.43 seconds, set in 1978 when she was seventeen, was only bettered in 2010.

Among the men :

Paul Brizzel, Tomas Coman, David Gillick, Paul Hession, Fanahan McSweeney, Gary Ryan.


The 2024 Paris Olympics – July 26 – August 11 – will host 10,500 athletes, with just as many women as men.

The Athletics schedule runs from Thursday August 1 to Sunday August 11.


Maeve Kyle paved the way for future generations

Olympian Sean Lavan

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