Tributes paid to athletics legend Ronnie Long who passed away aged 88

Ronnie Long. Photo: David Raleigh

TRIBUTES have poured in for Irish athletics legend Ronnie Long, who died yesterday (Saturday September 30). Throughout his storied career, the Limerick man helped foster the careers of sporting greats like Eamonn Coghlan, Frank O’Mara, Marcus O’Sullivan, and Sonia O’Sullivan.

Born in the UK rugby heartland of Northampton, but raised in Mungret, County Limerick, Mr Long (88) managed Ireland to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and was an Irish team selector for 30 years.

Following the formation of Bord Luthchleas na hÉireann (BLÉ) in 1967, he later began a 25-year unbroken stint as PRO in 1971 before becoming President in 1994 and later receiving the honour of a Life Presidency.

Athletics Ireland tweeted: “We are very sad to hear of the passing of our Life Vice President Ronnie Long. May he RIP.”

Lamenting the death of Mr Long, former Director of Sport at University of Limerick, Dave Mahedy, said: “The sporting family will truly, truly miss a legend.”

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Mr Long also brought medal winning athletes with him to both European and World Championships.

The 1987 first ever IAAF World Indoor Championships were also momentous for the former Irish manager when his fellow Limerick man Frank O’Mara took gold in the 3,000m.
The greats of sport need someone just as talented behind the scenes, pushing them to the podium.

His memories on the track and field are stuff of Roy of the Rovers.

Having “drifted” from cycling, through to badminton, to success at managing Ireland’s top athletes on a world stage, his sports career highlights were many.

Speaking to this reporter in 2019, Mr Long, who went on to become the voice of athletics on local Limerick radio station Live 95, said his “ability to coach and organise always seemed like my second nature”.

Long said his greatest ever sporting memory was in the quiet of the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis in 1987 in the aftermath of O’Mara and Marcus O’Sullivan both winning gold, in the 3,000m and 1,500m indoor world championships respectively.

“The stadium workers started to take up the track and Frank went over and said he was after winning the world title, and he introduced me to the track guys as his friend and team manager – and someone who had helped him since day one – and he said we wanted to walk a lap of the track together … so the guy guy left us to it, it was nice gesture,” Long recalled.

His biggest joy and satisfaction however was in helping the development of women’s athletics.

“The one thing I like about the top women is their ability to train and take punishment. It’s a major plus,” Long said.

“They’re disciplined and perfectionist, particularly in the technical events, which has to be admired. We (Ireland) have produced some outstanding talent.”

The late Mr Long was himself a talented athlete. He fondly recalled leading a four-man breakaway group across Sarsfield Bridge in Limerick City during a stage of the 1955 Ras Tailteann, one of his proudest sporting days.

Speaking at his home, nestled off the Ballysimon Road, he studied a black and white photograph which had captured the memory.

The Limerick county team who took part in the 1955 Rás Tailteann, featuring (L-R) Ronnie Long; Stephen Ryan; John Jensen; Pat O’Meara; Denis Ryan.

Transported back to that day, with the wind in his face and the thrill of breaking free from the racing peloton, Mr Long’s 84-year-old eyes danced excitedly across the image.

“Right from the drop of the flag in Ennis that day there were breaks (breakaways). When one break would get caught another one would go. It was frantic,” he enthused.

His brother John is a well-known horse trainer in Kilcornan, as was his uncle, Jack Bennett, in the UK.

The death of Mr Long’s niece, Yvonne, and her two-year-old daughter Ella, in a horrific road collision in Poland in 2015 was a massive blow, as were the passings of his brother Norman in 2016 and his wife and soul mate of 54 years, Bernie, a former secretary of Limerick Women’s Federation.

In his later years, Long, whose autobiography “The Long Road” was released in 2021, had battled health issues but rallied again. His son, Barry Long, miraculously survived a major health scare when his heart stopped six times in one day after he suffered a heart attack while swimming at the University of Limerick Sports Arena in March 2017.

Speaking about his son’s brush with death, he remarked: “It was like a thunderbolt, it was shocking.”

Long never sought plaudits. When he was invited to attend Croke Park in 2012 to accept a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to sport, Long said he “didn’t have a f*****g clue what this thing was about”.

Looking over a mountain of framed certificates and awards he received over the years, he simply shrugged his shoulders.

“I enjoy it, that’s the key. If I wasn’t enjoying it, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Mr Long, who died peacefully at Roseville Nursing Home is survived by his children Alan, Karen, and Barry. He is pre-deceased by his beloved wife Bernie and son Jeffrey.

His remains will repose at Thompson’s Funeral Home, Thomas Street, Limerick City, from 5pm to 6.30pm on Wednesday (October 4), with his funeral arriving in St Mary’s Cathedral at midday on Thursday, followed by burial in Kilmurry Cemetery in Castletroy.