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100 Years of Irish Olympic History

Release Date: November 14, 2023

Category: Blog | History

Ireland has a long Olympic history, mostly in the Summer Olympics. Ireland has sent athletes to the Games since the birth of the modern Olympics in 1896, first as part of the British team. When Ireland gained independence in December 1921, it quickly formed a National Olympic Committee the following year. The Irish team marched under its own flag for the first time at the Summer Olympics in Paris 1924. Their history in the Winter Olympics is far shorter; the first Irish athletes went to Albertville in 1992, and they have never sent more than a handful to a Winter Games or won a Winter Olympic medal.

Ireland was awarded a silver and a bronze for the art competitions in 1924. The first gold medal for Ireland came in 1928 for hammer thrower Pat O’Callghan. “The Wild Irish Rose” repeated his triumph in 1932.

Beatrice Hill-Lowe finished third in archery in 1908, but represented Great Britain though she hailed from County Louth. The first woman to earn a medal for Ireland was Michelle Smith. Smith claimed four medals in swimming in 1996, but her victories are clouded with controversy. She competed in 1988 and 1992, finishing no higher than 17th in any of her seven races. Smith began training with her husband, Dutch discus thrower Erik de Bruin. De Bruin had been banned from competition for four years for a failed drug test. Her dramatic change of physique, significant improvements in the pool, and her connection to known doper de Bruin, sparked questions. She publicly asked, “Who says doping is unethical?” Accusations flew, but Smith never failed a drug test. However, in 1998, Smith was banned from competition for four years for tampering with a sample. The sample collected at her home was found to contain enough whisky to kill a person. Her medals stand, though most consider them tainted.

On the other side of the popularity spectrum are brothers Paul and Gary O’Donovan. They only just earned a trip to the Olympics, beating Greece for the final spot at the 2015 World Rowing Championships. In the final race of the men’s lightweight double sculls in 2016, the pair “pulled like a dog,” winning silver, Ireland’s first rowing medal. Paul and Gary became the toast of Rio with their charm, heavy accents, and free-wheeling interview style. Gary retired after Rio, but Paul returned for Tokyo 2020, winning gold with Fintan McCarthy.

Ireland did not participate in the more well-known boycotts of the Summer Olympics in 1980 or 1984, but did not send a team to Berlin in 1936. While many athletes considered protesting the games in Nazi Germany, Irish athletes had other troubles to manage. When the Republic of Ireland was formed in 1922, six counties in Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. The National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland (NACA) claimed to represent athletes in both the South and the North. However, British federations claimed jurisdiction over areas that were part of their country. The dispute became so heated that the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF, pre-cursor to World Athletics) banned NACA from participating in international competitions. NACA requested intervention by IOC president Henri de Baillet-Latour who refused, saying it was an issue for the Irish to resolve. No resolution was found, thus no Irish athletes competed in Berlin.

This issue became part of the peace accords between the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and representatives of Northern Ireland. Athletes from Northern Ireland may represent either the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain in international competition. Northern Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan represents Ireland while Hannah Scott from Coleraine rows for Great Britain.

Ireland has qualified athletes in 13 sports for Paris 2024, including men’s and women’s rugby 7s and men’s field hockey. The best chance to see Ireland’s flag raised to the rafters is in women’s boxing. Kellie Harrington, the reigning gold medalist in the women’s lightweight division, is a strong contender to repeat.


–Alison Brown