Thursday 19 October 2017

The road best travelled

There was a time when it seemed failure was hardwired into our souls. Not any more, writes John O'Brien

IF you needed a measure of how far Irish sport has travelled over the past few years, the National Stadium 12 days ago wasn't a bad place to be. It was there in the long line of boxers and officials who sat at the top table, fielding questions from a sea of hungry reporters with reams of column inches to fill over the next month or so. The air was hot and heavy with a faint odour you don't often detect on the eve of Olympic Games. Expectation.

It was there too in the absence of Katie Taylor. Even though she is the Irish story of the Games -- arguably the only Irish athlete with true global reach -- no one took exception to Taylor's decision to stay away. A polite statement was released outlining her reasons, but the subtext was clear. She had better things to be doing than facing a sustained grilling less than three weeks before she entered the ring in London. The pressure was already great enough as it was, thank you very much.

Consider this time four years ago. Even the less conservative estimates leading up to Beijing didn't include Irish athletes coming home with medals draped around their necks. Outside of the boxing unit itself, no one predicted that an Irish fighter would scrape into a medal position, let alone that the team would claim Ireland's entire haul of two bronze and one silver. The path to China had been rough and unsteady and there was nothing in Ireland's recent boxing history to offer encouragement.

So there was little clamour for their attention. Billy Walsh, Ireland's head coach, took a moment to survey the media circus at the Stadium and reflected on how different it had been in 2008. It wasn't as if they hadn't signposted their potential. "That year [2008], we'd gone to the European Union Championships with all the fighters we brought to Beijing and won three golds and two silvers," Walsh said. "We knew perfectly well what they were capable of."

The rest of us didn't believe, though. Couldn't believe. Two Irish boxers had made the cut for the previous two Olympics and won a single fight between them. Each Olympics passed with a couple of Irish hopefuls but, since Sonia O'Sullivan anyway, nothing you'd hang your hat on. Failure, it seemed, was passed on from one Games to the next, like a baton. As if it was hardwired into our souls.

Back then, Pat Hickey's Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) was still at loggerheads with John Treacy's Irish Sports Council. The last-minute addition of four B-standard athletes, when a rigorous A-standard only policy had been promised, made the entire business look tawdry and amateurish. In the savage heat of China, it was clear that a lot of Irish athletes would be found wanting.

You notice the small things now. Four years ago, the OCI held a launch in the Merrion Hotel and paraded two clearly ill-at-ease athletes in John Rocha-designed outfits that seemed like hand-me-downs from Liverpool's forgettable 1996 Cup final outing. This time they staged a launch attended by a clutch of athletes sporting chic and comfortable gear they had a hand in designing themselves. Imagine. Athletes being consulted on a decision that could materially affect their performance.

The OCI deserves credit, too, for the appointment of Sonia O'Sullivan as chef de mission. It was slightly cringe-inducing to hear an interview with Derval O'Rourke recently in which she was pressed twice as to how often she would consult O'Sullivan in the build-up to London when, as anyone knows, O'Rourke is a fiercely independent spirit. Yet that was no slight on O'Sullivan. That she is there, an ever-present bridge between athletes and officials, is reassuring and eminently sensible.

It's hard to remember an Olympic build-up so free of acrimony and bile, lacking what Hickey jokingly refers to as the "big row". By and large the disputes that have riven the athletics community, while harsh on the athletes involved, are of minor consequence in the larger scheme of things. Nor does the Denis Lynch affair constitute a "national embarrassment". Showjumping, clearly, has major issues to deal with internationally. It is by no means exclusively an Irish problem.

In the main, Irish sport is in a good place right now. Things remain far from perfect, of course, but they are a damn sight better than they used to be. Think of the sports most likely to do well in London -- boxing and sailing foremost among them -- and it's hardly a coincidence that they are the ones with the most efficient programmes and where the term 'high performance' is best understood and practised.

Boxing will bear the heaviest burden of expectation and that is unavoidable. Three of the six -- Taylor, Darren O'Neill and John Joe Nevin -- will be seeded in their respective weight divisions and that will enhance their prospects of reaching the semi-finals at least. Eye-catchingly, no Russian or Cuban qualified in O'Neill's middleweight category. That could be a good thing or it could mean there is unnatural strength in depth in the division. Time will tell.

We know from Beijing that luck in the draw is essential. It opened up beautifully there for Kenny Egan and, dutifully, he took advantage. Walsh says that Michael Conlan, the Belfast flyweight, is the most improved boxer in the country over the past two years and is assuredly one to watch. Paddy Barnes isn't seeded but has the pedigree, while Adam Nolan has beaten the best welterweights in Ireland and that puts him up there among the best in Europe. They are all entitled to travel with confidence.

To assess Taylor's chances, it's as well to seek outside guidance. On the website www.Olympics30.com, Taylor is deemed to be the ninth best prospect of a gold medal in London, ahead of such apparent cast-iron certainties as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Just three fights stand between her and a gold medal, but the reward would be for the sustained brilliance she has shown over the past seven years, recognition for the supreme athlete she has always been.

Beyond that, there are hopes but no certainties. In June Annalise Murphy and the Star pairing of David Burrows and Peter O'Leary performed well at a World Cup regatta over the Olympic course in Weymouth, suggesting they would be contenders come the Games. Aileen Morrison has recorded 11 top-10 finishes on the world triathlon circuit over the past three years. With another small shove, a top-three position wouldn't seem out of the question.

Athletics is a much harder sell. It's encouraging that while only the strictest qualifying standards were accepted, there's still a team of 22 making the journey, six more than competed in Beijing. Yet such are the rising standards in global athletics, suspiciously so in many circumstances, anticipating medals seems a fruitless enterprise. The racewalkers, Rob Heffernan and Olive Loughnane in particular, represent the best chance although, in reality, top-10 finishes would be decent accomplishments for both.

Ciaran O'Lionaird, if fully primed, could make the final of the 1500m. For the third Olympics running, O'Rourke has had desperate luck with injuries but, if you had to back any Irish athlete to overcome a disrupted preparation, your money would be on the two-times European silver medallist. Still, she would likely have to run a career best just to reach the final and, even if fully wound up, that is a tough ask.

She and others deserve our respect for being there, though, for putting their lives on hold, chasing dreams that have been partly funded but only promise rewards not measured in pounds and pence. It is in their individual stories you find the true Olympic spirit, not in the grotesquely bloated corporate monster the Games has become or among the multi-millionaire stars increasingly courted for their celebrity appeal.

From left-field, there's always the chance of a little story to cleanse a cynical soul. Like when the canoeist, Eoin Rheinisch, came so close to a medal on the slalom course in Beijing. Rheinisch is back again for another go and Andrzej Jezierski could be worth watching in the sprint category. Perhaps the savagely determined Grainne Murphy could deliver something special in the pool. One of them could be a story. Lift our hearts for a day or two at least.

The thing is, it's alright to expect now. To set lofty targets. On its updated medal tracker list, USA Today ranks Ireland 51st on the Olympic table with two predicted medals, gold for Taylor and bronze for Nevin in the ring. If that's too conservative for your taste, an elaborate probability model devised by the investment banker Goldman Sachs has Ireland five places higher with a grand total of four medals.

Let's say we split the difference. Three medals. Would you feel happy with that? Just about perhaps.

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