Tuesday 25 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Rio's waters deliver silver lining for Irish Olympians

A largely depressing Games for Ireland redeemed by success of Annalise Murphy and the O'Donovans

The success of Annalise Murphy, Paul and Gary O’Donovan provided welcome relief from the bad news that brought about Pat Hickey’s arrest in Rio. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The success of Annalise Murphy, Paul and Gary O’Donovan provided welcome relief from the bad news that brought about Pat Hickey’s arrest in Rio. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

One of the guilty little secrets of sportswriters sent to cover an Olympics is that the majority, privately, don't want to be there.

Actually, they'd sooner go striding down the Gaza Strip waving a Star of David flag than pick up that laminated badge confirming them as extended members of what is so archly called 'the Olympic Family'. The feeling on touching down in a host city is as close as most of us ever get to the foreboding war correspondents must encounter when dropping their bags in some besieged place where humanity, like everything else, is about to come strictly rationed.

Of course, friends draw their own conclusions. They hear you're facing three weeks in a place like Rio and instantly form a mental picture of Ipanema and sun-lotion-fragranced bliss occasionally interrupted by trips to some futuristic stadium where there's a seat reserved for you that money couldn't buy.

Trouble is, nothing is ever quite as it seems with the five-ringed circus.

TV spins a lie and, with Rio especially, that lie was bewitchingly beautiful. Every day became a postcard day, drones delivering images of Copacabana and Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain that, as a package, conveyed some kind of Narnia from which nobody would ever, sensibly, choose to return.

In reality, the venue for South America's first ever Olympics felt perpetually over-run, a little careworn and riven with environmental problems, social tensions and an economy that had crashed through the floor.

Pat Hickey. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Pat Hickey. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

By and large, local 'cariocas' seemed broadly disenchanted with our presence, as if already wise to an understanding that the humanitarian rhetoric of this carnival almost always jars with the festering reality.

Bear in mind that one third of dwellings in Rio lack a proper sewerage connection, yet its people were being asked to swallow a romantic illusion of their city being some kind of Heaven on earth.

The cost overruns led to an official announcement mid-Games that, due to lack of sponsorship and poor ticket sales, there was "no money to do the Paralympics". Accordingly, only a federal government bail-out - breaking a promise to use only private money to service the operating budget - allowed the Paralympics to take place.

But money due to go towards travel grants for the participants was seized - through lawsuit and court injunction - by other creditors, leaving many national Paralympic committees heavily in the red.

Ireland's Annalise Murphy celebrates with her silver medal. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Ireland's Annalise Murphy celebrates with her silver medal. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Then there was the Zika epidemic, concern about rising crime rates and allegations of widespread corruption entangling politicians at the highest level in a country experiencing its worst recession in decades.

Olympic host cities and governments sign documents to bear all the cost and risk, so the long-term legacy for Rio always promised to be every bit as rotten as the water in Guanabara Bay. And its people seemed to recognise this even as the Opening Ceremony fireworks boomed up out of the Maracana on August 5.

An abiding Irish memory of that ceremony will always be that of a beaming Pat Hickey, positioned directly behind IOC president, Thomas Bach, getting to his feet to welcome Ireland's team into the stadium. That and the kooky little dance of his wife, Sylviane, standing next to him.

Recycled

It was a patently stage-managed TV moment, yet little did we understand how often it would be recycled over the next four months as Ireland's Olympic Council president found himself under investigation for ticket touting, ambush marketing and other allegations.

Hickey could not have known that gilded evening that it would be mid-December before he'd see home again but, regrettably, his troubles would become a kind of perfect metaphor for Ireland's Olympics.

Long before his arrest and temporary imprisonment in Bangu Prison, Ireland's boxers had been left reeling at news of a positive drugs finding against middleweight, Michael O'Reilly.

Lamentably, that news had not even been communicated to the Irish coaches as they travelled downtown to Teatro Bradesco for the formal Olympic draw.

There, Zaur Antia, John Conlan and Eddie Bolger suddenly found themselves besieged by media, a journalist having whispered the breaking news in Bolger's ear.

With Antia, naturally, feeling ill-qualified to comment formally until furnished with the facts, this doping story was left, initially, to survive on rumour and innuendo.

O'Reilly and his advisors did not help with what seemed like initial denial (including a remarkably blasé tweet the night of the breaking story) followed up by broad confusion as to what his response to the allegations might be.

By the time he was finally sent home, Ireland's Olympic boxing story had begun to fall apart with quite startling momentum.

And, as it did, the jarring sight of Billy Walsh in a navy tracksuit, overseeing a dramatic upswing in US boxing performances came to amplify the sense of a culture of self-harm contaminating the Irish boxing story.

Indeed that sense was italicised this month when Walsh was presented with the AIBA World Coach of the Year award in Geneva for his work at the US Olympic base in Colorado Springs where he is now considered an invaluable asset to their boxing programme.

True, the likes of Michael Conlan and Katie Taylor might have been victims of dubious officiating - something that would come to define the boxing tournament in Rio - but a team regarded as the strongest ever to represent Ireland at an Olympics would underperform so dramatically as to render that narrative almost incidental.

If anything, the quite farcical weight issues that ultimately sabotaged Paddy Barnes's efforts to medal at a third consecutive Games found almost emblematic status as the bad news flowed in torrents out of the Riocentro arena.

Redemption for Ireland came in a picturesque lagoon under the Christ the Redeemer statue as our entire rowing team brought a quite fierce competitive integrity to battle on the Olympic water.

Claire Lambe and a 39-year-old Sinéad Jennings made the final of the women's lightweight double sculls but, of course, it would be the O'Donovan brothers from Skibbereen who stole the show.

Silver in the men's lightweight double sculls was just the introduction for Paul and Gary, their post-race interviews taking on the faint air of deadpan cabaret as they charmed the international media.

There was glorious silver too for sailor, Annalise Murphy, four days later in the women's Laser Radial, a gorgeously liberating achievement for the Rathfarnham girl who had been so disconsolate four years earlier over her cruel, fourth-placed finish in Weymouth.

Moments of absolute heroism too from Thomas Barr, who charmed everyone he met while coming just the breadth of a butterfly's wings short of an unlikely bronze in the mens' 400 metres hurdles.

And a magnificent effort too from London bronze medallist, Rob Heffernan, in the 50km walk, the 38-year-old Corkman striding home in sweltering heat to a sixth-place finish in his fifth Olympics.

A rather animated Scott Evans got to the last 16 in the badminton tournament, while Ciara Mageean ran courageously into the 1,500 metres final and cyclist, Dan Martin, finished 13th in the men's road race.

There was a bit of an unexpected Irish commotion in the diving arena too as Oliver Dingley finished eighth in the men's three-metre springboard but three heartbreaking 2-3 defeats for the men's hockey team meant broad frustration for our first representatives in the Olympic tournament since 1908.

For a time, both Pádraig Harrington and Seamus Power threatened to get into medal contention during the inaugural Olympic golf tournament but could not quite meet the pace set by Justin Rose, while our representatives in Modern Pentathlon, Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe and Natalya Coyle, both excelled with top-ten finishes.

Appositely, Rio's Closing Ceremony took place in high winds and driving rain, the storm causing power outages through the city, yet fireworks booming again out of the Maracana to sustain the illusion of a place forever keyed to the rhythms of Mardi Gras.

And this time, the seat behind Thomas Bach stayed empty, Pat Hickey detained to the west of the city in Bangu's maximum security Penitentiary.

By the time the OCI president would finally get home, only a €400,000 loan from the Association of National Olympic Committees allowing him meet the bail bond for his passport's return, the Rio Games all but seemed a distant memory.

And the hosts?

In December, rubber bullets, tear gas and percussion grenades were being used on 'cariocas' as street protests turned to violence in response to new State Governor Luiz de Souza's attempts to introduce public sector austerity measures.

As ever, the party had moved on. And the fairy-tale with it.

Irish Independent

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