Back Garry Power John Farrelly Mid Terry McHugh Malachy Sheridan Front Pat McDonough Gerry Macken Cormac Smith
or the first 66 years of the Winter Olympics, a certain country was always missing from the bobsleigh competitions.
All that changed though when a bunch of unlikely lads – Greystones’ Cormac Smith among them – qualified for the 1992 games in Albertville, France.
And sure, it all went downhill very fast after that.
It all began when London-Irish businessman Larry Tracey was refused permission to drive the Igls bobsleigh track in Austria because, he was told, it was for international drivers only. Having recently driven a bobsleigh in St. Moritz, Larry was more than a little pissed off with his Igls hosts. And so, pulling together some noted Irish rowers, he formed the Irish Bobsleigh And Luge Association, the aim being to enter the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Malachy Sheridan, Terry McHugh, John Farrelly, Garry Power, Pat McDonough, Gerry Macken, Cormac Smith
And, of course, to rub his Igls hosts’ noses in the yellow snow.
Achieving qualification for the games, the virgin Irish bobsleigh team had their shot at glory cruelly snatched away from them when, at the 11th hour, the Olympic Council of Ireland withdrew their entry. Which was a shame, given that this was the year that Jamaica would make a little history by debuting at the games, an achievement charted in the hit 1993 Disney movie, Cool Runnings.
Macgillycuddies Reek 1986
The fact that the team qualified for the 1992 Winter Olympics gives Jason Branagan’s new Irish documentary feature Breaking Ice its springboard to happiness, with Ireland qualifying every game since.
But just how did a strapping young lad from Greystones end up in France, in a bobsleigh, representing his country by hurtling like a spitball through a hollow pen?
We got in touch with the great man himself to find out about this perfect party icebreaker…
It’s a long and winding road from your Greystones childhood to today – passing through Guinness, The Irish Press, Dutch rugby, becoming a fitness trainer, both the British and Irish bobsleigh teams, PR, a non-segregated gym in Derry, the pharma industry, the Public Sector… I’m dizzy just writing it. Any gameplan here…? I didn’t actually work for The Irish Press, but it was the first title to ever publish my work. An article entitled Bobsleigh Dream Wrecked By Small-Minded Men (which is alluded to in the film).
I graduated with a degree in politics and economics from UCD IN 1985, followed by a year living in the Netherlands, when I worked for Unilever and played rugby for Rotterdam. I returned to Ireland in 1986 when, after completing an additional Marketing Qualification, I had a short spell working for Guinness as a salesman, followed by a decision to develop my fitness industry career – becoming, I think, the first professional fitness trainer in Irish rugby when I worked with the Blackrock RFC first team to help prepare them for the 1986/87 season
In autumn ’87, having carried out a variety of fitness training roles including a second second pre-season stint with Blackrock RFC, I decided to move to London to continue my career. It was just before I left that I was was introduced to Gerry Macken, who in turn introduced me to Larry Tracey, who was looking to recruit a new brakeman.
In a trial where I went head to head with the monstrously powerful Steve Redgrave (5 Olympic titles), I acquitted myself well enough to be selected. And so began the adventure.
Three years later, shortly after I decided to call an end to my boblseigh journey, when on the British World Cup Squad, I took on a contract for a company in Dublin to set up a gym in Derry. I calculated that in a small divided city if the business was to be successful we needed to attract memberships from from both communities. This involved a very personal PR campaign in the city and doing everything in my power to ensure the 13 jobs we were bringing to the city were evenly and fairly allocated. I was also feted in the local press – London Derry Sentinel as They Man for All Seasons for my exploits representing both Britain and Ireland and setting up a gym in the city.
I continued working in the fitness business up to late 1993 when I changed career and began to work in Pharmaceutical PR, which I did up to 2000 before a move into the public sector. At the end of 2018, by which time I was a senior civil servant, Deputy Director of Communications at the Cabinet Office (UK government), I decided it was time to move on and open the next chapter. I negotiated a generous early retirement/voluntary redundancy agreement, and I now work as a strategic communications consultant with various clients.
How did you become part of that historical Irish bobsleigh team..? I joined the team in 1987 and later that year we duly qualified for the ’88 games, with myself and Tracy winning a qualification competition on the Olympic track in Calgary just before the end of the year.
How does it feel, seeing that part of your life flash before you on the big screen? It was nice to have Jason Branagan tell our story so authenticity and well. It was actually my second big screen appearance. Between 2016 and 2018, I served as a British diplomat in Kyiv, as Communications Advisor to the Foreign Minister of Ukraine. During this time, I was asked to play a small role in the award-winning Ukrainian musical Hutsulka Ksenia. This film premiered to local acclaim in 2019. So, being in a couple of movies has been a fantastic experience
You were good enough to be poached by the British bobsleigh team after that 1989 success – tough decision, or happy to go wherever the action is? In 1989, I won two silver medals at the British Open Bobsleigh Championships, and was subsequently selected for the World Cup Squad for the 89/90 season. I did this with Larry Tracey’s blessing, and I have absolutely no regrets- it was an amazing experience, and I can say for the rest of my life that I am one of the only men to represent two countries at World Cup level in Bobsleigh. At the beginning of 1990, I decided to retire from competitive sport once and for all, and pursue my career in the fitness business.
You have a reputation for yelling it like it is, Westminster City Council’s director of comms and strategy Alex Aiken stating in 2012, “Cormac is authentic in everything he does, whether it’s representing Ireland at bobsleigh, setting up fitness centres or championing the cause of homosexual equality in Soho’ – where does that drive come from? A happy childhood? A hard childhood? Being Irish? Whatever I have, or I am, I owe to two amazing parents who instilled in me an absolute belief in myself, an uncompromising sense of right and wrong, and a strong determination to always be true to myself.
In the Wicklow Hills 2013
A rich and varied life. What’s been happening with Cormac Smith in recent years? Ballet? Brain surgery? Ninja for hire? I am currently a freelance strategic communication consultant. I am focusing on a number of new business projects. Our world is in flux – I have much work to do yet…
Do you have any particular memories of those early days in Greystones, and when did you leave us, exactly?
I left first in 1985, after graduation. I love returning to the town between mountains and sea. It is one of the most beautiful townlands anywhere on this earth. To be five minutes from the beach, 20 minutes to the heart of the wicklow mountains and 30 from Dublin City Centre is unique – it’s just a very special place with lots of great happy memories
Difficult to get back to your mum right now – how often would you normally be home? I get back as often as possible to see mum and her wee labradoodle, and am hoping to make a visit very soon – but this pandemic makes things difficult.
And what do you miss most about the place? Beside Joe Sweeney’s chips… The mountains and the sea…
You can find out more about Jason Branagan and Breaking Ice here, and about Ireland at the 1992 Winter Olympics here.
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