Quite why Mike Ryan’s performances were so underplayed down the years is difficult to understand. Perhaps the Waikato-based Ryan missed out on some of the media attention because he did not live in a main city. And perhaps because he won bronze medals, not gold, he did not capture the headlines.
Whatever the reason, there is little doubt Ryan was a marathon runner of the highest class. He ran at two Games – the 1966 Kingston Empire Games and the 1968 Mexico City Olympics – and returned with unlikely bronze medals each time.
Could there have been two more challenging runs? In 1966 he had to contend with the torrid Jamaican heat that melted the chances of so many of the marathon field. Two years later, the altitude of Mexico City (situated 6000ft above sea level) wrought havoc with the distance runners from sea-level countries.
African athletes dominated the distance events at Mexico City, which made Ryan’s marathon bronze all the more astounding. While such great athletes as Australians Ron Clarke and Derek Clayton were destroyed by the altitude during those Olympics, Ryan ran with incredible grit and determination to earn his medal.
Ryan, who grew up in Bannockburn, Scotland, immigrated to New Zealand in 1963, when he was already showing potential as an athlete. He had won Scottish junior titles at the mile and was a national cross-country championship place-getter.
Once living in the Waikato, Ryan soon hooked up with John Davies, who introduced him to the Arthur Lydiard training methods. Davies helped Ryan build the endurance that would stand him in such good stead when pitted against the world’s best marathoners.
Ryan was a much more versatile than is commonly acknowledged. In 1967, he won the national cross-country championship and represented New Zealand at the world championships.
He won New Zealand track titles over 5000m, six miles and 10,000m and finished fifth in the 10,000m at the first Pacific Conference Games, in Tokyo in 1969.
But it was as a marathon runner that he achieved most. Besides his Games efforts, he also won the prestigious Fukuoka marathon in 1966, in a New Zealand record time of 2h 14min 5s.
Ryan’s Olympic medal was not without cost. He maintains that the effort required to run so fast for so long at altitude affected his health for many years afterwards, causing him to feel continually sapped of energy.
In Scotland, Ryan was an engineer. He worked in forestry in New Zealand, being an engineer at the Kinleith plant until 1973, when he shifted to Auckland.
Ryan maintained an interest in athletics. He ran in veterans competition in the 1980s and ’90s, and did some coaching, in Tokoroa and later in Auckland. Ryan and his wife Marie have two adult children, a son and a daughter.
Ryan was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.