The story of Oscar Pistorius is hauntingly reminiscent of the troubles of one of New York’s finest who happened to be one of the most famous Olympians a little over a century ago.
Matthew J McGrath from Nenagh, County Tipperary, had already made an international reputation for himself as an athlete before he shot what he said was an intruder in his New York home on Christmas Eve in 1910.
McGrath, who had emigrated to the US as a teenager in the 1890s, joined the New York Police Department in 1902 and was awarded the medal of valour for rescuing someone trying to take their own life in the Harlem River in 1907. The same year he burst onto the sporting scene by breaking the world record for the hammer throw.
He represented the US at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. What he reportedly said there during the opening parade was heard around the world. As the American team was approaching the royal box with King Edward VII and his family, McGrath reportedly said to shot putter Ralph Rose, who was carrying the Stars and Stripes, “Dip that flag, and you’ll be in hospital tonight.”
If he did say it, it was probably in jest. Rose was a much bigger man who was not likely to have been easily intimidated. The decision not to dip the flag had undoubtedly been planned.
The whole thing caused a diplomatic incident and sparked a bitter rivalry between Britain and the US at those games, foreshadowing the rivalry with the Soviet Union later in the century.
McGrath led the hammer throwing going into the last round, but was beaten into second place by his compatriot and NYPD colleague, John Flanagan, who came from the outskirts of Kilmallock, Co Limerick. Flanagan, who had already won the hammer at Paris in 1900 and St Louis in 1904, thus became the first man in the modern Olympics to win a specific event at three consecutive games.
The winner of the bronze medal that day was Con Walsh from Carriganima, near Macroom, representing Canada. It was the first and only time in the Olympic Games that three men born and reared in Ireland swept all the medals in an event.
On Christmas Eve 1910, McGrath was back in the news for all the wrong reasons. He shot a man five times in his Flatbush home in New York City. He said that George Walker was an intruder, but Walker claimed that McGrath’s wife had invited him to the house to adjust a Christmas tree.
A barman at a local hotel testified that McGrath’s wife had been drinking with Walker in the hotel bar during the afternoon. McGrath was tried on a charge of causing grievous bodily harm, but the jury found him not guilty after a three-day trial in March 1911.
The Police Commissioner James C. Cropsey dismissed McGrath from the NYPD the following month, but the Mayor William Jay Gaynor of New York ousted the commissioner a few weeks later. The new commissioner, Rhinelander Waldo, reinstated McGrath in May 1911. A concerned group then took a civil case to prevent McGrath being paid from public money.
This was an obvious attempt to force him out of the police department, but his colleagues agreed to have money deducted from their salaries to pay McGrath’s salary. While this dispute was continuing, McGrath was back competing at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he won the gold medal with probably the most devastating display in the history of the event.
All six of his throws were more than 13 feet further than the best throw of the silver medallist. The Olympic record he set that day lasted for 24 years.
McGrath went on to compete in the 1920 Games at Antwerp, but he injured his knee in his second throw and had to withdraw. Yet his one good throw was good enough to win him 5th place.
In 1924 he competed at the Paris Olympics at the age of 45, winning his second silver medal, thus becoming the oldest track and field medallist of all time.
McGrath had duly been put back on full pay within the NYPD and rose through the ranks, becoming sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and inspector. He became the third highest-ranking officer in the force before his retirement in 1940.