Sunday 23 July 2017

Daring to pray for a miraculous medal . . .

Andrew Bree Photo: Arpad Kuruc/Getty Images
Andrew Bree Photo: Arpad Kuruc/Getty Images

It is fashionable at the moment to claim that the Beijing Olympics are of little or no interest..

The spectacular opening ceremony on Friday might have changed perceptions, but for many people the games have been tainted from the moment they were given to the Chinese.

No matter how successful they turn out to be, and no matter how many gold medals the Chinese win, the cynicism that gave the games to Beijing still hangs over them.

Add in the doubts about performance-enhancing drugs -- who, honestly, believes that this year's 100m final will be contested by eight clean athletes? -- and you have all the necessary ingredients for a sporting yawn.

In Ireland, despite wall-to-wall coverage from RTE's enthusiasts, excitement is doubly hard to muster. Irish medal prospects appear minuscule, there are few recognisable stars in the team and there has been precious little build-up.

With dreary predictability, we even had the last-minute row about accreditation, proving once again that when it comes to petty politics, sports organisation can do it better (or worse) than politicians themselves.

But, and it is a very big but, it is inevitable that something will happen over the next few weeks that will set our pulses racing and may even force us to become experts in the minutiae of a sport that we never knew existed.

The excitement will not, sadly, come from men's badminton or women's fencing because Scott Evans and Siobhan Byrne, our two competitors in those disciplines, had their Olympic dreams extinguished on the first morning of competition, or from cycling where Philip Deignan and Nicholas Roche also bowed out, but that still leaves 50 more athletes to root for.

Derek Burnett, a shooter from Longford, is on his third games, having finished 18th in Sydney and seventh in Athens. The top six make the final and shoot for a medal but Burnett's chances of being there for the shoot-out were damaged yesterday morning.

Expectations are low, which is hardly surprising after the dismal returns from Sydney and Athens, but that might work in favour of those athletes who do have a realistic chance of making an Olympic final and challenging for a medal.

Denis Lynch, our sole showjumper, is in the form of his life and should mount a serious challenge while there are genuine hopes that Kenneth Egan, one of the Irish boxers, can make it through to the semi-finals after a convincing show. Of the track and field athletes, David Gillick could make the 400m final, as could Derval O'Rourke in the hurdles if injury does not continue to blight her season. In the hammer, Kilkenny's Eileen O'Keeffe may be struggling to match her early promise, but she too can make her final.

For others, Beijing is part of their preparation for the London Games in 2012. Little is expected from our two young female swimmers, Aisling Cooney and Melanie Nocher (pictured), but they will benefit from the experience and should be contenders in four years' time. Andrew Bree, the only male swimmer on the team, survived a drugs controversy earlier this year when he tested positive at the European Championships but lodged a successful appeal against suspension. He is unlikely to make the final of the 200m breaststroke, but he should at least make the semi-final.

The measure of his success, and of Cooney's and Nocher's, is that they deliver personal best times while competing with the very best swimmers in the world. And that performance standard -- delivering a personal best under the most demanding conditions -- is the one that must be applied to all the members of the Olympic team. If they can do that, they will have triumphed, no matter what place they come.

That, of course, is easy to say and sounds right, but the truth is that we all crave -- however unreasonably -- excitement and are desperate for a medal, no matter where it comes from. Be certain, though, that something will happen: the Olympics never fail to deliver.

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