Monday 26 September 2016

Tragedy casts long shadow as Rio parties

Cathal Dennehy

Published 19/09/2016 | 02:30

Ireland’s Katie-George Dunlevy, along with her pilot Eve McCrystal, in action during the Women’s B Road Race in which they finished second. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ireland’s Katie-George Dunlevy, along with her pilot Eve McCrystal, in action during the Women’s B Road Race in which they finished second. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

As cities go, Rio is the undisputed champion of contrasts - a place where such wealth and poverty, such beauty and ugliness, such hospitality and hostility, can co-exist as one.

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Rarely, though, did the place feel as black and white as on Saturday afternoon. It was there, on the southern coastal area of Pontal, where a wave of emotion came washing over Irish cyclists Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal, the pair winning their second medal of the Games, a superb silver in the women's B tandem road race.

The duo on their way to finishing second in the Women's B Road Race. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Benavent/Sportsfile
The duo on their way to finishing second in the Women's B Road Race. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Benavent/Sportsfile

It was there too that Iranian cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad careened off the road earlier in the day, suffering a horrific crash that eventually saw the 48-year-old - a father, a husband, a Paralympian - lose his life.

It was mid-morning, halfway through the men's road race, when Golbarnezhad lost control of his bike on a descent as he rounded a turn. Though he initially presented good vital signs, he sustained a severe head injury on impact, one which broke his helmet apart, and after suffering two cardiac arrests, he was pronounced dead at a local hospital before midday.

The show went on, the only indication of the severity of the situation being the announcement that the women's race would be delayed by an hour and shortened by 15km. Unaware, as everyone was until the news was announced at 6pm, McCrystal and Dunlevy were approaching their race in relaxed, jovial mood.

They worried about the things elite athletes worry about - how much food and fluid to take on while they waited, which moves they would cover from which rivals. Right then, it was all that felt important, the finality of their task creating a tunnel vision of thought.

From the start, they rode with a confidence befitting freshly minted gold medallists - at the front, making moves, never allowing a dangerous rival to get out of sight. On the final lap, Poland's Iwona Powkoscielna and Aleksandra Teclaw finally landed the punch that the Irish duo couldn't dodge, and they would go on to take gold, 59 seconds clear of McCrystal and Dunlevy in second.

Exhaustion, elation, euphoria - it all came at them in those moments after as Dunlevy searched for the words to paint a picture of the race.

"It was a really, really hard one," she said. "One of the hardest I've done. We're absolutely exhausted, but it's fantastic. It was a fight the whole way."

Grim reality

And then off they went, beaming wide smiles but still blissfully unaware of the grim reality unfolding at a hospital just a few miles north.

So, too, were Peter Ryan and Marcin Mizgajski, who finished 12th in the men's race, shortened to just under 100km due to the delay caused by the crash.

The first half of the race was held on the flat coastal roads before competitors hit the hills, and afterwards Mizgajski unwittingly gave an indication of the risks that had ultimately taken Golbarnezhad's life.

"It was a crazy descent," he said. "We were clocking 90-plus [kmh] on bends. The boys in the car behind couldn't catch us. We saw people crashing and it was crazy dangerous so we decided to take it easy and get down safe."

Others weren't so lucky, specifically Golbarnezhad, who was remembered with a period of silence during last night's closing ceremony. Shortly afterwards, of course, the party went on, as it does, as it must.

Cyclists are a strange bunch. Often brave to the point of reckless, they accept and embrace a level of risk and suffering which remains unfathomable to the rest of us. For some, it pays off. For others, tragically, it doesn't.

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