They changed his name on Ellis Island, but this larger-than-life athlete still held the flag high for his new home nation.
By Thom Dunn
The first foreign-born Olympic flag bearer for the U.S. didn’t even compete with his own given name.
Pádraig Mac Domhnaill was born and raised by a family of weight-throwers and strongmen in Ireland. But when he arrived in the U.S. in 1899 at the age of 21, the immigration officials changed his name to “McDonald” instead of the more common spelling of “McDonnell.”
As a man who was nearly 300 pounds and clocked in at just about 6 feet 5 inches tall, the newly christened Patrick McDonald knew it was better to keep his head down than correct them — after all, misspelled names were hardly the greatest struggle for Irish immigrants at the time.
McDonald once told a magazine his first warehouse job was hard labor, and after six long years, he joined the New York Police Department.
This certainly wasn’t an uncommon career path for Irish immigrants at the time. But when he wasn’t on his beat as Times Square’s Falstaffian traffic cop, McDonald was busy honing his weight-throwing prowess through the Irish-American Athletic Association. Soon enough, his size had earned him the ironic nickname “Babe” as well as a coveted spot among the Irish Whales, an infamous group of like-sized Irish athletes who dominated track and field.
McDonald’s fellow “Irish Whales”: John Flanagan, Martin Sheridan, James Mitchell. Photo via Chicago Daily News/Chicago Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons.
McDonald won his first Olympic-qualifying championship in 1907 — just as weight-throwing was dropped from the Games.
Still, he was determined to make it to the Olympics someday. He put aside his hammer and discus and turned his attention to the shot put. By the time the 1912 Games in Sweden rolled around, he was good enough to take home gold and silver medals for the United States.
After returning as a winner, McDonald continued to work as a traffic cop in Times Square — but even that came with its own reward. He became as well-known for his public persona as a “Living Statue of Liberty” as he was for being an Olympic champion. One reporter noted, “Never in the record of the swirling traffic of autos did any chauffeur ever venture to ignore McDonald’s great bulk. Newsboys pooled their spare pennies to buy him a loving cup.”
Still, McDonald kept on training, eager for the chance to win another gold medal for his new home country.
Time Square in 1920, when Patrick McDonald was still on the traffic beat. Photo via American Studio, New York/Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division/Wikimedia Commons.
With no Olympic Games during World War I, McDonald had to wait eight years to compete again — but once more, it was worth the wait.
It had become a bit of a tradition for the U.S. track-and-field captain or gold medal winners to serve as flag-bearers in the Olympics’ opening ceremony. And since McDonald filled both criteria, it just made sense for him to carry the banner to the 1920 Games in Antwerp — making him the first foreign-born U.S. Olympian to have that honor. The 42-year-old earned another gold medal that year too, making him the oldest Olympic track-and-field champion in history.
Pat McDonald, second from the left, with his fellow Irish Whales. Photo via Library of Congress.
McDonald carried the flag once again at the 1924 Paris Games. But that time, he didn’t compete.
He had other responsibilities at home.
McDonald had a family to take care of, and new duties as a sergeant for the NYPD (he went on to make lieutenant in 1926 before retiring as a captain in 1946). Besides, he’d already beat the record for oldest track-and-field athlete, and he was only getting older — although he did continue to compete in weight-throwing competitions domestically, winning his 16th and final national title in 1933 when he was 55.
A monument to Pat McDonald, built in his hometown of Doonbeg, Co. Clare, Ireland. Photo via Night of the Big Wind/Wikimedia Commons.
McDonald was a larger-than-life figure. But his infectiously positive nature is what made him truly remarkable.
In some ways, his life may sound like the quintessential American immigrant story. But McDonald’s successes were never about wealth or fame — he simply wanted to work hard, do good, and raise a family. And while he was certainly rewarded for his efforts, those rewards came later in life, and they were not his only motivation.
Still, it speaks volumes that Team USA could come together — twice — under the flag as it was flown by a middle-aged athlete born in another country. While his native land suffered through strife and its own violent revolution, McDonald found a new home in a nation of immigrants that welcomed him with open (if misspelled) arms.
When McDonald passed away in 1954, The New York Times said that he had gone through life “with a song in his heart, a twinkle in his eye and laughter ever bubbling within him.” And perhaps that was his greatest legacy after all.
This story was produced as part of a campaign called "17 Days" with DICK'S Sporting Goods. These stories aim to shine a light on real occurrences of sports bringing people together.
Share image by Tech. Sgt. Rick Sforza/U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons.