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How Irish sport and politics collided as cyclists gatecrashed Olympics

Pat Healy and John Mangan with their white cycling attire with green and orange hoops
Brendan Hughes

Former cyclists have recalled how Ireland's political divisions spilled onto the sporting world stage when they hatched a secret plan to gatecrash the Olympics.

For decades cycling in Ireland was split into rival factions with open hostility between them.

On one side, there were two internationally-recognised bodies north and south, and on the other was the National Cycling Association (NCA) – a group led by prominent republicans who believed in an all-island organisation alone.

READ MORE: Restricted numbers of fans to be allowed at GAA matches

Since 1947 the NCA had been barred from international competition and the group had protested at the 1955 World Championships and the 1956 Olympics.

In 1972, against the backdrop of the Troubles, the group prepared to demonstrate once again – this time at the Olympic Games in Munich.

In a new RTÉ radio documentary, cyclists on both sides of the feud recall how Irish sport and politics collided in front of a global audience.

Seven NCA cyclists and several supporters travelled to the Munich games with a plan to gatecrash the cycling road race to highlight their cause that they should be allowed to compete.

At the start line, most were halted by race officials.

Noel Teggart

They tried to hand out leaflets in English, French and German about their protest, while two unfurled a banner that read: "British Army occupies our sporting fields."

But one of the cyclists, Pat Healy, avoided detection.

"I got started right up at the front of the group. If I was going to do something it was the perfect time – I got a perfect start to the race," he said.

As the race got under way, John Mangan and other NCA riders dressed in their unofficial white jerseys with green and orange hoops, were waiting in woods ready to join in.

"I led the Olympics for a good few miles and the only fella who was able to stay with me was the Russian," Mangan said.

"It wasn't a scandal, but there was a bit of confusion when a fella leading the Olympics had no number, and he shouldn't be in the Olympics."

John Mangan following the Olympics road race

Healy's race came to an abrupt end when he was involved in a crash.

Mangan was forced into the middle of the bunch, where he encountered Noel Teggart – the promising lone rider from the northern body that was part of the official Irish Olympic team.

The pair were involved in a scuffle and they fell away from the pack.

Kieron McQuaid, another rider from the official Irish team, said Teggart was "disconsolate" following the race.

Mangan was arrested but released without charge.

Before the race, the games had been overshadowed by a violent siege in which 11 Israelis and a German police officer were killed by Palestinian gunmen. The Olympics resumed after one day of mourning.

The protest still made headlines around the world. Taoiseach Jack Lynch gave the protesting cyclists a public rebuke, and even threatened to withdraw passports.

Almost five decades on, some believe the demonstration was the catalyst for changing the course of Irish cycling, with the sport now governed by an all-island body.

Teggart, who has since died, was considered a driving force behind northern clubs joining a new power-sharing body.

His legacy lives on, with his grandson Matthew Teggart now hoping to compete in the Olympics in Tokyo, which were postponed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 24-year-old, from Banbridge in Co Down, said his grandfather "was really the turning point in the whole divide north-south because of what happened to him at the Olympics".

"Now anyone cycling in Ireland, north or south, you ride for Ireland."

:: 'Green and Gold', part of the 'Documentary on One' series, is available on RTÉ as a podcast from July 24 and airs on RTÉ Radio 1 tomorrow (July 25) at 1pm.

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