Sitting down with Cyril

Ahead of his retirement from the Irish University Athletics Association, DUCAC honourary chair Cyril Smith recalls what he draws from sport, College’s victories, and what keeps him on track

SPORTThe day Cyril first arrived at Trinity, he walked straight into the midst of an old athletics tradition. The sun gleamed down on the manicured lawns of College Park. Throngs of students milled around the edge of the cricket pitch or the Pav steps, surrounded by an excited buzz. At centre of it all, College Races were underway. Athletes thundered around the grass track, racing each other for the honour of being declared Trinity’s finest runner. This competition has seen Trinity’s fastest and fittest battle it out on the grass track since 1857 – even Bram Stoker once tried his luck.

“Everyone was going around in morning coats and top hats, the President was there, and I thought, this is a wonderful place.”

It was this event that would sway his decision towards working and teaching for the next 28 years in Trinity.

Cyril’s involvement in athletics began rather accidentally. Educated in the University of Glasgow, and working in Ireland for the first time, he considered himself more of a recreational runner. A colleague convinced him to train for the Dublin Marathon, and on this whim he started to take his casual runs a bit more seriously. Trotting along a rocky cliff trail between Bray and Greystones, a chance encounter with another runner led to Cyril joining his first club.

“I was running along the cliff walk… this guy came up behind me and we struck up a conversation. He invited me along to Bray Runners training group. I went along one day, and I found that I rather enjoyed it, so I stuck with it.”

Training with Bray, Cyril completed his ambitious debut race in less than 3 hours. After that, Cyril was hooked, and one marathon turned into 23.

Cyril’s involvement has not been limited to competing. He has served as Treasurer for a number of clubs and associations, has been involved with the IUAA since 1992 in a variety of roles – Committee Member, Hon. Secretary, Vice President, Hon President, P.R.O, Chairman – and has led Trinity’s sports clubs governing body DUCAC since 2009. He has been involved in Bray Runners committee since joining. He received outstanding contribution awards from the IUAA in 2011, and from Leinster Athletics in 2013. You would be forgiven for wondering whether Cyril really is retired. So why does he give so much to Irish sport? It is certainly not for the accolades.

“You’re a volunteer. You do these things because you love doing them. Though it is nice to be recognised.”

Cyril also earned a lifetime achievement award for his dedication to teaching, and gave it back to the college to continue to inspire young scientists even after his retirement.

“I wasn’t interested in the money. I gave it back to the department to set up a prize for the best Senior Sophister project each year. I am happy to say that it is still running.”

More well-known among athletics circles as a race starter, Cyril is rarely seen at a race meet without a pistol in his hand. His voice evokes the nervous, excited flutter as you crouch down at the starting line; you listen closely, tensed as you wait for the gun to explode, wait for your reflexes to jolt into action.

“A lot of athletes get used to you and get used to trusting you. They trust you not to make a mistake, and you trust them not to false start.”

The importance of an experienced official cannot be overstated. The no false-start rule means that jumping the gun a moment too soon can get you disqualified. You must trust their dedication to the fairness and quality of athletics.

Over the years, Cyril has amassed an encyclopaedic knowledge of Irish athletics history, and has done vast research into the rich background of college athletics. His DUCAC office in the Sports Centre certainly reflects this. A hefty row of books lines the windowsill. “Running: A Global History” by Thor Gotaas. Trinity graduate records, historical sports results. There is a cabinet bursting with trophies and awards.

He tells me about one distinguished College athlete from the 1880s. Alfred Vigne qualified as a doctor in Trinity in 1890, and during his studies competed for the college. Vigne was a sprinter, excelling in 220 yard and 440 yard events. He also played rugby and won a gold medal with DUFC in the Leinster Senior Challenge Cup. He set several Irish records and collected a multitude of athletics medals. Earlier this year, the family of Alfred Vigne donated twelve 18-carat gold medals to Trinity College, some of them of unique value. This generous gesture almost floored the history enthusiast Cyril.

“It’s an incredible gift. An incredible thing to believe that these medals won in the 1880s still exist and that the family is prepared to part with them… They will soon be on display to students.”

Cyril is full of recollections of a time when the sport was quite different. My favourite more recent anecdote is from the 1990s, the time when female athletes in Ireland started to wear crop tops to races. The leading group of women were dashing around the course of the university road relays at NUI Maynooth. Unbeknownst to them, the women had quite scandalised an elderly man in the nearby priests’ training college.

“An old priest came out and saw these women running around in these scanty new things and almost got knocked down trying to stop the race.”

Needless to say, a group of athletes with a finish line on the horizon may as well be a herd of charging rhinos. “They were NOT going to stop.”

I ask Cyril what his proudest moments are in Irish athletics. Thomas Barr, just named Irish Universities Athlete of the Year, wowed Cyril with his gold medal for 400m hurdles at the World University Games earlier this year. He also gave ferocious performances at the intervarsity Indoor Track and Field Championships.

“Last year, the two relays where Thomas Barr ran the last leg for the University of Limerick in the 4X200m and the 4X400m, it was incredible to watch. He made up so much ground to win both for UL. Not just for himself, but for the team.”

Cyril, however, has a long memory and he fondly recalls moments where athletes demonstrated their determination and tenacity. There was a memorable incident at the Track and Field Championships of 1993, where Padraig Farrell was looking to medal in the 3000m men’s steeplechase.

“The weather was beautiful. It was the steeplechase. This lad was from NUIG, and the [steeplechase] barrier was quite rotten and his spikes were just a tad too long. So when he stepped up on the barrier to leap off it the first time over the water jump, his foot stuck on the barrier and he nosedived into the water jump… He got out drenched, with the rest 30 or 40 metres ahead of him, and he went after them. He got within 10 yards of winning. He was determined to get a medal… he got bronze in the end.”

One equally tenacious student who also stood out to Cyril was Iain Morrison, a Trinity student and club captain from 1995 to 1997. One competition in particular, where Iain ran 1500m, was very memorable. It was a nail-bitingly close race until the final 10 metres.

“On the line he was so determined to win that he literally threw himself horizontally over it and won in a photo finish. He crashed into the ground and grazed his shoulders.”

Cyril looks fondly at the computer screen where he has pulled up the race results. “He was one of those athletes you had to admire. He always gave 100 percent.”

This sense of commitment is something that Cyril holds very dear. He believes that athletes who have been coached and mentored from a young age have a duty to give back to the community. One of the biggest challenges facing sports in Ireland, according to Cyril, is the difficulty in finding sufficient number of volunteers. Officials, coaches, committee members, drivers, fundraisers – all of these roles make amateur sport possible. However, the vast majority of athletes who stop competing also end their involvement in the world of sport.

“All athletes get mentored and coached from an early age. Once their athletic careers are over, they step down and most don’t give anything back.”

Iain Morrison once again gets mentioned as an example of a conscientious athlete. He looks back on his days in DUHAC (Trinity Athletics) with nostalgia, and has even taken up the coaching of Trinity’s long distance team after his own coach Mick Farrell retired earlier this year. Cyril is hopeful that this will inspire other athletes to do the same.

“People who have enjoyed a sport should continue to be involved in it if they possibly can… It’s community service – you are thinking about the upcoming generation and the future of sport.”

Cyril Smyth himself demonstrates the value of lifelong involvement in sport, and what it means to aspiring young athletes. Even as he prepares to step down as chair of the IUAA, he will not be hanging up the starter’s pistol any time soon.

“I will be called on to start races, and I have no intention of retiring from Irish University Athletics. I’ve been involved for a very long time, since the 1980s when I used to run myself… I have no intention of disappearing.”

If you’re interested in getting involved in DUHAC, Trinity’s athletics club, email [email protected] for more info.