If there was a small cloud on the horizon during Katie Taylor's progress to Olympic gold, it concerned the fate of some other contenders in her class.
In an ideal world -- certainly in mine anyway -- Taylor would've been joined on the podium by Natasha Jonas and Quanitta 'Queen' Underwood. But the draw precluded that. Jonas beat the American and was pitted against Taylor in the next round. There could be no conflict of loyalties here.
But there was a tinge of regret that Jonas had to exit before securing a medal. A few weeks before the Games she'd featured prominently in a Channel 4 documentary called Knockout Scousers. She came across as a sweetheart, a lovely human being. Immediately I was rooting for her.
In 2010, Underwood gave Taylor one of the hardest fights of her entire career in the World Championship semi-final. Last February in the New York Times she told of the prolonged sexual abuse that she and her sister had suffered as children, inflicted upon them by their father. It was a heartbreaking story. Aged 19, she found a path in life at a local boxing club in Seattle.
Reading it had me dearly wishing that she too would win an Olympic medal. Quite frankly, had Underwood fought Taylor in the final, I wouldn't have cared much who won. They'd both have had their medals anyway.
Taylor as we know ended up fighting Sofya Ochigava. I felt no ambivalence here. I wanted Taylor to win. In telling their stories, Jonas and Underwood had been humanised. Ochigava was still just a nationality: "the Russian", Taylor's "Russian opponent". We knew no more about her than that.
In a globalised event like the Olympics, most of the competing athletes are just nationalities. We see them sweat and suffer just like our own, but somehow it's not enough to engender empathy for them. They remain abstract entities: a number, a country, a flag on the vest. We care nothing for them when an Irish competitor defeats them. In the men's 50k walk our hearts went out to Rob Heffernan for his valiant fourth-place finish. The athletes who came third and fifth, equally valiant, barely registered with us. And Heffernan presumably didn't register with the countries who were cheering their third- and fifth-placed man. It's the paradox at the heart of the Olympic ideal. And it is a beautiful ideal, embodied in the opening ceremony where athletes from every corner of the planet merge in a constellation of skin colours and bone structures and languages that is joyous and life-affirming to behold.
But then the action starts and this interlocking jigsaw of humanity is broken up into its constituent parts, nation by nation. Each country roots for its own, against all other countries. The national ego asserts itself. The nation's champions carry our colours onto the field. They are flesh-and-blood people to us; we know their stories, we know who they are. But they are strangers to everyone else, as their champions are to us: ciphers and pawns in this great vanity contest among nations.
Old habits die hard and the tribal impulse is strong. The sight of a man or woman competing in the national colours is usually enough to get the blood racing. One wonders how many idiots we cheered to the rafters over the years, just because they happened to be representing the country. And how many genuinely nice people we wished misfortune on, just because they were competing against one of our own. Nationalism and tribalism shouldn't trump humanity, even in the relatively benign world of sport, but they routinely do.
On the same afternoon that Taylor won her gold medal, Nicola Adams also won gold, in the flyweight division. Adams, a British boxer who radiated charisma, was roared on by the huge Irish support. It was seen as a sign of progress, another step in the normalisation of relations between our two countries, etc etc. Fair enough. It would've been mortifying had they booed her. But presumably they found it easier to identify with Adams. Her opponent was Chinese, "the Chinese girl", and therefore just an abstraction. Her name was Ren Cancan. Maybe her story would change hearts too, if we knew it.
The emotions and issues around identity are hard to disentangle. Sport tends to accentuate them. But it also contains some hallowed principles which can clarify them too. It is, above all, a meritocracy -- and a cruel one at that: Underwood, for all her courage in life, sadly wasn't good enough on the day.
But it can also help to defuse the politics of identity, the anxieties of the tribe. There is an essential truth at its core that dispenses with flags and anthems and borders. It ordains that the best man should win. Simple as that. It doesn't matter who he is or where he's from.
Embracing this Platonic ideal as the path to wisdom will be a work in progress, for this follower at any rate. I will no doubt succumb to my ancient loyalties, amid a flurry of curses, at the sight of some Irish disappointment in the not too distant future. But, if nothing else, it would be good for the blood pressure.
And it might help one to see the humanity in the stranger whose only crime is to be better than the best our tribe can offer.