Bob Tisdall is an Irish Olympic gold medallist. His story is one of determination and desire, and overcoming the odds to succeed.
Tisdall was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1907. He was raised in Tipperary and was an Irish citizen through his parents. He worked as a personal bodyguard and chaperone for a wealthy Indian king, acting as a tour guide around Europe.
Tisdall described this as ‘the best job in the world’ but he gave it up in order to pursue his dream, to compete at the Olympic Games. He quit his job and went to live in an abandoned railway carriage in an orchard and trained by running around the apple trees, in a scene that would not be out of place in a ‘Rocky’ film.
He applied to compete for the Irish team at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and was invited to the national heats at Croke Park. Tisdall managed to qualify for the team after being given a second chance having failed with his first run.
He had to cycle to a local school every day to borrow some hurdles, as there were none available at the Irish training camp. He qualified for the semi-final race in Los Angeles, and in it he equalled the Olympic record to reach the final. Years later, he spoke of his feeling at the time: “I said to myself, ‘Well, you’ve run in the semi-finals and equalled the Olympic record; Bob, you’re really getting the hang of this!”
In the final he was up against four former Olympic hurdles champions. However, Tisdall ran a time of 51.7 seconds which was enough to win the gold medal. It was a world record time but according to the rules at the time, it couldn’t be classed as a new world record because he had knocked over one of the hurdles. That rule was swiftly changed and now the official Olympic committee recognise Tisdall as the first man to run the 400m hurdles in less than 52 seconds.
One of the commentators on the gold medal race described Tisdall’s victory as having an “element of a fairy tale about it”.
Tisdall’s gold medal winning race came less than hour before another Irish athlete, Dr Pat O’Callaghan’s won gold in the hammer throw. This made it Ireland’s most successful day at the Olympics in their history.