Ferris flame shame

OLYMPIC Torch route-planners missed a trick when they bypassed Dromore, home of an Olympian hailed as one of the greatest distance runners in Northern Ireland and UK history.

That seems to be the feeling among residents, a number of whom have given voice to disappointment that the Olympic flame passed so close to Dromore during its recent tour around Northern Ireland, without visiting the hometown of marathon man Sam Ferris.

Lit in Greece, the Olympic Flame arrived in the UK on 18 May, before setting out on a 70-day relay featuring some 8,000 torchbearers.

Organisers planned the relay so the Flame would travel to within an hour of 95% of people in the UK, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey

Currently being borne around England, the Flame will end its journey when the last torchbearer lights the cauldron at the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium, marking the official start of the London 2012 Games, and will remain lit until extinguished at the closing ceremony.

Among the places the Flame passed through during its journey around Northern Ireland were Banbridge and Lisburn, as well as smaller areas such as Ballynahinch, Saintfield and Crossgar, all within easy reach of Dromore, where some residents think it a shame Sam Ferris’s hometown missed out

“I’m very disappointed,” said one man, “that the torch didn’t come through Dromore when it was the home of Sam Ferris, one of the greatest athletes the island of Ireland has ever seen.”

Sam, for whom, of course, Dromore’s Ferris Park is named, made his Olympic debut at the 1924 Games in Paris.

Born (in 1900) and initially raised in the townland of Magherabeg, Sam moved to Glasgow with his father when his mother died, but after only a few years they returned to Dromore, where the keen 17 year-old runner won many prizes. At 18, with WW1 ongoing, Sam joined the Royal Flying Corps - later the Royal Air Force - and was posted to India, returning to Dromore upon completing his service.

But in 1923 he rejoined the RAF, and it was while stationed in England that he came third in a cross-country race and caught the eye of Bill Thomas of Herne Hill Harriers, who persuaded Sam his strength might lie not in cross-country running, but in long-distance running.

Competing in his first ever marathon (26 miles), he was one of 80 starters in the 1924 Olympic trials and came in just 45 seconds behind the winner, so earning selection for the British Olympic team. Sam’s fifth place in 2.52.26, behind the eventual winner Alban Stenroos of Finland, was the best Olympic marathon achievement by a British runner thus far.

Unfortunately, Sam failed to claim Olympic gold despite competing in two further Olympics -Amsterdam 1928 and Los Angeles 1932 - the latter most frustrating as he only saw the course once before the actual race, while the eventual winner, Juan Zabala of Argentina, had trained on the course and knew it well.

Despite this and other impediments, Sam finished just seconds behind Zabala and won the silver medal; both men broke the world record.

Sam raced on for many years, securing more honours, among them the first AAA title contested, eight consecutive Polytechnic marathons and a runner-up spot in 1930’s inaugural Empire Games.

Sam died in the late 1970s.