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Our Sporting Lives And Times: Seamus Downey on 'unreal' LA Olympics and eating with Daley Thompson, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett

Our Sporting Lives And Times: Seamus Downey

King of road: Seamus Downey in his cycling prime
King of road: Seamus Downey in his cycling prime
Family shop: Seamus with Sean (left) and Mark
Proud: Seamus Downey with wife Margaret and sons Sean and Mark (right)
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

At a first cursory glance, it's an ordinary bike shop. Located down a winding country road on the outskirts of Dromore, there's plenty more rustic charm than the big chain stores popping up all over the city but no less degree of choice. Every available inch of floor space is devoted to housing enough stock to cater for every need of the cycling enthusiast, with frames even hanging from the ceiling to make room.

What makes this shop different, however, is the proprietor. Patriarch of one of Northern Ireland's most successful cycling families, only a few scarce photos offer a hint that the man stood behind the counter was an Olympian during the Irish cycling boom of the 1980s.

Part of the team that went to Los Angeles in 1984, two years after representing Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Seamus Downey's passion for bikes took him further from his father's dairy farm than he ever could have dreamed when he lifted his first set of discarded wheels out of a dump and put the unloved two-wheeler back together.

"Well, we lived a mile and a half from the town and the concept of a 'school run' wasn't really a thing back then so that first bike was a means of getting into school without having to walk, nothing more than that," he says.

"Initially anyway, I was always fascinated by bikes but from an engineering perspective, the technology involved in it. It was a love of mechanics first and I suppose my racing developed from that."

Growing up in an area with a fine cycling tradition, it wasn't long before the bike became far more than just a way of cutting down on the commute to school.

"My uncle Pat was a member of Banbridge Cycling Club and he had a few racing bikes," he says. "I always remember those shiny wheels and I always wanted one of them for myself.

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"Wanting to race probably came from wanting the bike. At 14, I'd go out with the club and through that learnt the ropes of road racing, how to ride the bike and the ethics of it.

"When I started there wouldn't have been a lot of members, like most clubs at that time really, but Banbridge was always renowned as a strong club even in international terms.

"Noel Teggart had represented Ireland at the Olympics in 1972 and Noel Gallagher went to a Commonwealth Games.

"There was always that history within the club and there was always that strong culture.

"I was lucky that there were always people there willing to help you along."

After a few years of schoolboy cycling, and having never before left Ireland, Downey was soon on his way to the Commonwealths, a trip that sparked something inside the 21-year-old that ultimately fostered his Olympic dream.

In international terms, the Games of the XXIII Olympiad were to be dominated by talk of the Soviet boycott. After the US had skipped Moscow four years prior, it was no surprise when just months before the flame was lit at The Coliseum, the USSR said they would not be present in Los Angeles thanks to, amongst other factors, "an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States".

Far from the tensions of the Cold War, these were changing times in Irish cycling too.

Pat McQuaid, a former national cyclist himself, had been put in charge of assembling a squad for Los Angeles, bringing with him a hitherto absent level of organisation to proceedings, establishing what was dubbed the Raleigh Olympic squad in the early years of the 1980s to prepare for the impending Stateside journey.

"Pat brought a very professional approach to it and he targeted things like the sponsorship," says Downey. "It meant that we went to international races, we rode Raleigh bikes which probably aren't what you'd call advanced today but it was a big step for us.

"We were able to go to America weeks before the Games to ride a race called the Coors Classic in Colorado."

After the tensions of Moscow in 1980, and the financial losses incurred by Montreal four years before that, 1984 was the year that the Olympics got back on track, public interest stoked in no small part by the 83 gold medals won by the host nation and the concurrent 'When the US Wins, You Win' promotion run by McDonald's. Nothing draws in the crowds like the potential for a free Big Mac.

Historically significant thanks to the imperious performance of Carl Lewis, Downey now looks back on a "special" few weeks of his life.

"It all felt unreal, it really did," he says. "We missed the opening ceremony unfortunately. It was the day before the road race, the very first day. You couldn't have done it, you'd have zapped physically but that was a bit disappointing as I'd like to have been a part of that.

"But you're there in the Olympic Village and I remember sitting at the same table as Daley Thompson in the cafeteria. Seb Coe, (Steve) Ovett, they were all knocking around the place.

"These were superstars that you saw on TV, I was a teacher from Banbridge, and you're sat down having lunch with these guys. It was pretty special.

"Within the village, there were lots of shops with all sorts of merchandise but because you were an athlete you didn't have to pay for anything.

"All the sponsors had their own gear and you could call in and walk out with whatever you wanted. With us coming from poor Ireland, Ireland of the 1980s, you can imagine we couldn't believe it. We were arriving home with bags and bags full of all this free stuff."

Other members of that Olympic team, the likes of Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage - "two great guys, two friends," says Downey - would soon follow in the footsteps of the two brightest stars of the era, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, by turning pro. While he did spend a year racing in America, the pro ranks never particularly called to the Northern Irishman who'd had to balance his Olympic prep with his teaching job at St Malachy's High School in Castlewellan.

"I'd started working as a school teacher in 1983," he says. "I was the only one there (in the Olympic squad) with a job, in full-time employment, so I had to balance all that. I had to base all my training and racing around the job. The school and the principal were always very good and allowed me to take the time for, as it was called, international duty but I always knew my job was there when I came back. Because of that, I wasn't committed to cycling the way that I needed to be to ever go professional.

"Having a steady career in those days, the 1980s, was so important and I wouldn't have risked that."

It was, he feels, his decision to remain amateur that saw him remain blissfully unaware of the burgeoning doping problem developing in the sport he loved.

"I must have been naive," he laughs. "I just thought everybody else was better than me. It never crossed my mind because I never saw any evidence of it.

"The whole Lance Armstrong era was very disappointing, not just for people who loved cycling but everybody else.

"The whole story, the world had bought into it and embraced it, it was bitterly disappointing.

"Thankfully I think it's a cleaner sport now."

He is well placed to comment, able to bear witness to the anti-doping measures that his two sons have been put through during their careers.

Sean won bronze for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games of 2010, while Mark has World Cup golds to his name.

"I didn't bring them up to be cyclists," stresses Seamus. "I suppose what I did was I passed on a love of cycling and of sport.

"There can be a lot of pressure put on young kids and it annoys me because the most important thing is to foster a love of sport, if you can do that success follows."

Mark's own success could yet see him follow in Seamus's footsteps and make the Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer. A case of like father, like sons. Not quite, counters Seamus. "I'm the only one in the family that never won a medal!" he smiles.

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