Saturday 1 October 2016

Sinead Kissane: Olympics should be a pinnacle not an inconvenience

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

'The Zika virus won’t deter Cullen (p) from travelling if she makes the qualifying standard over the next few weeks.' Photo: Sportsfile
'The Zika virus won’t deter Cullen (p) from travelling if she makes the qualifying standard over the next few weeks.' Photo: Sportsfile

The day after Rory McIlroy pulled out of the Rio Games last week a far different perspective on the Olympics, and what it really means, was on show in Sligo town on Bonfire Night.

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Despite the wet weather conditions, hundreds of people pitched up at the athletics track in Sligo IT for a race which was especially organised for local athlete Mary Cullen to try and run the Olympic qualifying time for the 5,000m.

With time ticking towards the closing date for Olympic standards later this month, Cullen couldn't get a race to run in Europe in June.

That's when local athletics coach Dermot McDermott came up with the idea of organising a 5,000m race for Cullen in her home town last Thursday.

The global nature of the Olympics was suddenly distilled down to the very local and the very personal. Cullen's initial reaction to McDermott's proposal for a race was that it would be too much pressure.

But she was eventually won over with talk of how she could inspire younger kids watching.

That evening, as she warmed up for the race, Cullen couldn't believe the number of people who came to watch her chase a dream she's been running after since she was a kid.

Organisers did everything possible to try and help Cullen; athletes were there to do the pacemaking for her in the race, marquees were put up around the track to act as wind shields, there was commentary at the track and the race was live on local radio, and hundreds of supporters stood on the track itself - from lane four out - to make their support as effective and powerful as possible.

After the gun sounded for her race at 9pm, all she heard was her name being roared every step of the way around the track.

When Cullen felt a tightness in her hamstring early on in the race, she tried to block out the sudden terror that she may have to pull out. But she didn't pull out. Her family came into her mind as she ran the laps just as they had in the build-up to the race.

She thought of her dad who passed away in 2011 and how she did everything she could to try and qualify for the London Olympics the following year but she pushed too hard and ended up with a stress fracture. She thought of how proud her dad would be if she managed to run the Olympic 5k time at home and qualify for her first ever Olympics at the age of 33.

But the evening didn't produce the romantic ending. After she crossed the finish line, local kids and her family went over to her and hugged her and Cullen got upset at the thought that she might have let down the hundreds of people who came to support her.

But that's just the unique catchment area of an Olympic dream; everyone from family to friends to fellow athletes to coaches to neighbours to locals to people who admire you from afar are caught up in your dream too.

How different do you think that will feel for golfers playing at the Olympics? Making a mockery of the Olympics is set to become golf's unwanted legacy after countless withdrawals from Rio.

While every golfer obviously has a right to put their family first in any situation, the Zika virus won't deter Cullen from travelling if she makes the qualifying standard over the next few weeks.

"I don't think anything could stop me from going. For me, as a woman, if I wanted to have kids you're still going to be fine within a few months. So I just think it was a bit of a lame excuse from the golfers," Cullen admits.

"I think it does devalue the Olympics as these are big names and these guys don't want to go."

Whether you want to fully believe golfers' reasons for opting out or not, maybe the Olympics was just our dream and not theirs.

The fact that neither McIlroy nor Shane Lowry will be in Rio means we've selfishly been denied a nailed-on chance of a medal and denied an opportunity this summer to wallow in the kind of patriotism we revelled in during the Euros.

Along with our trusted boxers, the golfers had given us a chance to be gloriously confident about ourselves. And after the emotional crash following the highs of the Euros, Lowry at the Olympics was one of the sporting fixes we assumed we could look forward to before he pulled out days later.

Maybe we needed the reminder but we now know where the Olympics rank for McIlroy: "I've said to people I have four Olympic Games (Major championships) a year. That's my pinnacle. That's what I play for. That's what I'll be remembered for."

And that's the heart of this. Katie Taylor will always be remembered for winning an Olympic gold medal. McIlroy would not be always remembered for winning an Olympic gold and that, essentially, is why golf should not be an Olympic sport.

The romance of watching the Olympics is believing that, right now, nothing else matters, that this is the biggest moment of their careers.

If competing at the Olympics isn't the pinnacle, where's the magic?

While it was easy to hear Pádraig Harrington's enthusiasm for competing in Rio when he spoke about it earlier this week, I don't want to see players become cardboard cut-outs of themselves because they're playing in something which feels more of an inconvenience than a huge ambition.

The Olympics should be saved for athletes who know the Olympics as nothing less than the biggest moment of their lives.

Nothing stinks out sport like apathy and the biggest losers are us, the viewers. We have to see that it means as much to who we're watching, as it does to us.

Just ask the hundreds of people who were at the athletics track in Sligo on Bonfire Night last week. Just ask Mary Cullen.

Irish Independent

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