Sunday 25 September 2016

It's a shame athletes' Olympic spirit can't seem to inspire many of those charged with running sport

Published 26/08/2016 | 02:30

Olympic Silver rowing medal winner, Annalise Murphy arriving home from Rio with her coach, Rory Fitzpatrick and her sports psychologist, Kate Kirby Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins
Olympic Silver rowing medal winner, Annalise Murphy arriving home from Rio with her coach, Rory Fitzpatrick and her sports psychologist, Kate Kirby Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins

Watching the healthy and joyful faces of Team Ireland arriving home to loved ones in Dublin Airport, it was impossible not to contrast their achievements with the tawdry allegations swirling around the allocation of Irish Olympic tickets.

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All of them have steered clear of the media storm over the arrest of OCI President Pat Hickey in Rio and pending enquiries at home and in Brazil.

This distancing from the controversy may seem strange but it is not surprising. Elite athletes have a capacity to isolate themselves from wider issues.

Their focus has to be on their own performance, their mental and physical capacity to compete at the highest level.

My late father John was an accomplished athlete and when he retired he mentored athletes like world indoor 3,000m champion Frank O'Mara. He always said elite athletes were like race horses, finely tuned and temperamental. It didn't take much to upset or spook them. Which is why they have to have that total focus, the ability to shut out the world and concentrate on one thing only, their own performance and the dogged pursuit of excellence.

For athletes, those long years of endurance, training and mental preparation all come to fruition at the Olympic Games.

But to get to Rio, athletes will have had to compete and win at national, European and world championships. Some will have had setbacks through injury or illness or by just being a bit off form at a particular time when it counted.

Most of them will have arranged their entire lives around their sport, living away from home in the United States or wherever is best suited for their training. Careers are moulded around the sport. Families have to fall in with the plan - and most do.

A sporting intelligence and prowess is amazing to behold. Some are born with a natural talent. Mostly though, it is the consistent training and preparation which makes the champion. To be an Olympian comes only after years of grit, determination and painful endurance. There is little glamour and often the pursuit of perfection in their chosen sport is a lonely journey.

I well remember the muddy athletic meets I was brought to as a child while my father herded young athletes to and from club competitions. Our car always smelt of wintergreen balm and damp tracksuits. It was always raining, cold and miserable.

He had a little starter gun, which to us children was always a source of delight and surprise when he discharged it to start the races. He taught us how to pass the baton in a relay race; to perfect a fast start; to put the shot and throw a javelin. I thought everyone knew how to do these things.

As the child of a champion sprinter, there were expectations of inherited talent. Sadly, while coordinated and fast, I lacked that killer competitive gene. In contrast, my sister Yvonne was a flier and won most of her races. My brother Sean was a fine sportsman but excelled in soccer and rugby rather than athletics.

Television coverage of the European and world championships were compulsory viewing in our house; my father took his holidays to watch the Olympics. He knew all the times for the various runners over the different distances and would fascinate us with his silver stopwatch. I remember sprinting barefoot on Dollymount Strand towards my father's shining stopwatch when he set up impromptu races if there were enough children around to compete.

He was always wistful around the time of the Olympic Games. As children, we were unaware but later learned that he had a sad Olympic experience.

In 1947, the Olympics were held in London. The previous games had been in Berlin in 1936 and the war had intervened.

My father was Irish champion sprinter at that time over 100 and 200 metres and was due to compete in London.

But because of a political wrangle about which Athletic Association was recognised by the UK as representing Ireland (32 counties or 26), he and other athletes could not compete.

His name appeared in the programme and he got his green jersey but he missed out on his once-in-a-lifetime chance to run in the games. What a blow it must have been. But politics has always been too close a neighbour of Olympic sport.

Thankfully, Team Ireland were sufficiently professional not to allow the off-track drama in Brazil damage their performance.

However, dominating the media as it did, it must have been a distraction.

However, when they put their spikes away, after rest and reflection, perhaps some of them will engage in the debate on what promises to be a period of disclosure and accountability about the governance of amateur and Olympic sport.

The initial failure to exclude the Russians following the conclusive findings of state-sponsored doping was disastrous, casting a cloud over the integrity of the games. Athletes from all countries need to speak up and be part of the solution to doping in sport - it cannot just be left to officials.

Apart from the ticket touting allegations, it has been a memorable Games for sporting excellence.

The thrill of Irish medal winners Annalise Murphy and the O'Donovan brothers in sailing and rowing, and the record-breaking performance of Thomas Barr lifted Irish hearts.

The sparkling supremacy of Jamaican Usain Bolt, victorious in his last Olympics, an unequalled talent untouched by the doping scandals of his own sport. The UK's remarkable medal count.

But there was plenty of heartbreak, too. Who can forget the incandescent rage of Michael Conlan, deprived of an Olympic medal by poor judging - or worse? Or the distraught vulnerability of Olympic champion Katie Taylor in defeat.

Winning and losing fair and square, the agony and the ecstasy is what gives sport its humanity and is ultimately what keeps all sports lovers hooked.

The athletes' honourable passion for their goals should act as an inspiration to those charged with running their sports.

Irish Independent

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