Friday 21 October 2016

Olympic heroes lift nation's spirits

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Brothers Paul, left, and Gary O’Donovan after the Men’s Lightweight Double Sculls A final in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brothers Paul, left, and Gary O’Donovan after the Men’s Lightweight Double Sculls A final in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

We needed a story, a narrative we could invest in. The first week of the Rio Olympics went by in a haze of indifference. The athletics had not yet begun and the "minority" sports just didn't grab our attention.

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Of course, there were our boxers - who had been our main medal hopes - but we seemed to take them for granted. Then even that went horribly wrong.

Our indifference and even cynicism was fuelled by the dark side of sport worldwide - the doping and the incompetence of sporting officialdom. The lead-up to Rio was dominated by the scandal of Russia's state-sponsored cheating, but we know it goes on everywhere. It is estimated that, at any given time, 10 to 15pc of athletes are doping and only about one or two per cent are caught. The World Anti-Doping Agency has an annual budget of €23m to police the planet. That's how seriously the problem is taken. A replica medal in the post months after the event is no substitute for standing on the podium with the real thing around your neck while your national anthem is played and your country's flag is raised. Just ask Derval O'Rourke.

But on Friday everything changed. Gary and Paul O'Donovan created a legend in six minutes and 31.23 seconds. Two young lads we didn't really know from a place most never heard of took on the world in a sport few here really cared much about - and they won silver, coming home less than a second behind the victorious French pair.

Suddenly we had a story we could relate to. We began to look at Rio with fresh eyes and realise the enormity of the Irish effort, and to put it in the proper context. There are 11,000 athletes in Rio - that's the 11,000 best athletes in the world, proven by the fact that each one of them reached the Olympic qualifying standard. The best of our young athletes are there by right, and they are not just making up the numbers - some are qualifying for semi-finals and finals.

Our athletes are now among the elite of the elite - whether it's rowers Sinead Lynch and Claire Lambe losing a final gallantly but winning our hearts forever; or Seamus Power and Padraig Harrington in the golf; or Greg Broderick in the equestrian events; Mark English, Lizzie Lee, Ciara Mageean or Breege Connolly in athletics; Judy Reynolds in dressage; Scott Evans in badminton; or our sailing competitors, headed by Annalise Murphy.

Then we remember our boxers - Steven Donnelly, who fought so bravely to earn the right to take on the current world number one, and Michael Conlan, who may yet add to the bronze he won in London. Then there is our secret weapon, the wonderful Katie Taylor - about whom hardly a word has been said or written since the games began.

It's almost enough to make you forget that our homegrown Olympic administrators - the Irish Olympic Council - defy this current of excellence when dealing with what may or may not be a ticket touting scandal. And our Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, has been uncharacteristically slow out of the blocks.

But none of this can dampen our spirits now, because they have been lifted so high by two determined and irrepressible youngsters from Lisheen, and the cream of our athletic crop, who are making us so proud in Rio.

Sunday Independent

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