The track-and-field athlete Peter O’Connor may not be much remembered in Ireland now but he deserves to be as he set a world record for the long jump that remained unbeaten for 20 years and remained an Irish record for a remarkable 89 years.
He was born 150 years ago on October 24th in Millom, Cumberland, the third eldest of 11 children of Edward O’Connor, a shipwright, and Mary O’Brien.
His father was employed temporarily in England at the time but the family returned to Wicklow, where they were from, and Peter attended national school in Wicklow town until the age of 14 (his parents couldn’t afford to send him to secondary school). From an early age, he was inspired by ideas of Irish nationalism and joined the GAA, which was founded in 1884. Securing a position as a solicitor’s clerk in the office of Redmond Connolly in Clifden, Co Galway, was a step forward for him and it was in Galway that he became involved in competitive amateur athletics. After representing Clifden in the Galway sports of 1895, he received extensive coverage in the national media.
Two years later, he became managing clerk at Nooney’s Solicitors in Mullingar.
In 1898, a Mayo unionist named Walter Newburn set a new long-jump world record of 24 feet (7.32 metres) and he and O’Connor became rivals over the following years; there was a political side to the rivalry, especially as O’Connor outjumped Newburn many times but the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA), a unionist body, disallowed O’Connor’s distances on technical grounds. That year O’Connor became managing clerk for solicitor Daniel Dunford in Waterford city, where he lived for the rest of his life.
As a member of the local Harriers club, he developed a new jumping style where he placed lathes across the jumping area while training and avoided them by using a mid-air scissors kick (a technique later emulated by the famous American athlete Jessie Owens).
This led to great success and at the IAAA championships in May 1901 at the RDS grounds in Ballsbridge, he jumped 24 feet, 9 inches (7.54 metres); in Kilkenny on July 15th, he jumped 24 feet, 11.25 inches (7.60 metres), and 24 feet, 11.75 inches (7.61 metres) at an RIC sports competition in Ballsbridge.
All three were ratified as Irish records, also being the best in the world, and the newly set up International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) in 1913 adopted the longest measurement as the official inaugural world record. It wasn’t surpassed until 1921, remaining an unbeaten record for 20 years, and stood as an Irish record until 1990, the longest national record of all time.
O’Connor next competed in the world championships in Buffalo, New York, where the American media dubbed him the “Irish antelope”.
Unfortunately, the unruly behaviour of an overexcited crowd led to him accidentally injuring himself; he still won but his jump was 2.5 feet short of his best.
Back in Waterford, he courted Margaret Halley, daughter of a wealthy landowner, who considered him an unsuitable partner for his daughter.
In 1904, the pair eloped to Dublin and were married, six months after the father’s death. They had five sons and four daughters during their marriage.
He hadn’t participated in the 1900 Paris Olympics, as he did not wish to compete on the British team, and he didn’t make the St Louis Olympics in 1904 because of difficulties associated with his marriage. But the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens (called the Second International Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee) gave him his chance.
He wanted to represent Ireland but couldn’t as only national Olympic committees could nominate participants. He won gold in the hop, skip and jump (now the triple jump), at 34 the oldest ever gold-medal winner in this event, it has been claimed. He won silver in the long jump; he should have been awarded gold but the only judge of the event – incredibly – was the manager of the American team and he declared an American athlete the winner.
At the silver-medal award ceremony, he staged a political protest at having to compete as part of the British team by scaling the 20-foot flagpole and replacing the British flag with a green Irish flag with the words “Erin go brath” (Ireland for ever) on it. According to Mark Quinn, who is his great grandchild and has written a book about him, The King of Spring (2004), this was the first protest of its kind in the modern Olympics.
Thereafter, he retired from competition to concentrate on his legal career, taking over Daniel Dunford’s practice in 1920; Peter O’Connor and Son solicitors’ firm still exists in Waterford and Dublin today. He travelled to every Olympic Games after Athens, until London 1948, and wrote memorable accounts of Los Angeles 1932 (at which he was an official judge) and Berlin 1936.
He died in November 1957 and is buried in Ballygunner Cemetery, Waterford.