Monday 26 September 2016

Vincent Hogan: The Games must be about more than glory if Olympia is to convey anything other than a lie

Postcard from Rio

Published 08/08/2016 | 02:30

Flag-bearer Paddy Barnes leads the Irish team into the Maracana Stadium on Friday for the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Flag-bearer Paddy Barnes leads the Irish team into the Maracana Stadium on Friday for the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Cathal O'Grady never had much appetite for any concerted reflection on his Olympic story. The most important fight of his life ended inelegantly in an Atlanta ring with a first-round stoppage two days after the '96 Opening Ceremony.

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He was 19 and mortified. A fight he might have won had effectively been sabotaged by an awkward loss of balance that sent him crashing head-first onto the canvas.

Two punches later, he was being helped out through the ropes into a world of sympathetic backslaps and an eventual homecoming to a family in Kildare who'd faithfully kept all newspaper cuttings. "Gone in 90 seconds" was the heading above this writer's report of his loss to a New Zealand journeyman, Gareth De Silva.

O'Grady says he watched the video once, then tossed it in a drawer from where it has never since seen daylight.

His story pre-dates the arrival of a High Performance programme for Ireland's boxers and accordingly carries that slapstick quality of a pursuit of excellence before anyone running elite sport in Ireland truly understood the concept.

Before the '96 Games, Ireland's Olympic boxers went to Boca Raton in Fort Lauderdale for a month of acclimatisation from where they'd journey in to Gerritts' Leprechaun Gym in the hard-bitten Wynwood district of Miami. There, a 14-stone O'Grady was left to spar with some local professional Gullivers.

Conceding as much as five stone to the likes of Phil Jackson (who'd gone eight rounds with Lennox Lewis in a WBC heavyweight title fight two years earlier), Glencoffe Johnson (future IBF light-heavyweight champion) and Uriah Grant (future IBF cruiserweight champion) O'Grady was educated on virtually nothing beyond the relationship between size and power.

"It was like a 400m runner training with 5,000m athletes," he told me before the London Olympics.

It seemed natural to think of him last week, on the final leg of a marathon journey into the ultimate reality TV that is Olympia. During a late-night American Airlines flight to Rio from JFK, you couldn't but find yourself second-guessing the body-language of those in tracksuits and clinging to their water bottles as if ten minutes without hydration might leave them weaker than newborns.

After months of fielding high-fives, hugs and, no doubt, the odd outbreak of ribald innuendo about IOC commitments to the planting of seeds, the reality of stepping from relative obscurity into a show about to be watched by billions can be overwhelming.

Athletes can become cowed or, in some cases, simply unlucky.

Athens was Derval O'Rourke's first Olympics and probably returns to her as one of the most miserable experiences of her life. We have produced few spunkier track and field athletes in our history but in '04, O'Rourke was struck down with appendicitis on the run-in to the Games, spending six days in a Greek hospital.

A virtual ghost on the starting blocks in Athens, her performance was hopelessly compromised and she flew home crestfallen.

Motivation

In the media, we didn't dwell too long on the circumstances to her experience, surmising simply that the Olympics might have been a step too big for her. O'Rourke subsequently used that dismissiveness as motivation, suggesting that it made her "hard" for the next time.

On Saturday, Kieran Behan finished 38th in the men's gymnastics event here, well outside a place in the final.

History's cold hand won't make much of that achievement for a man whose understanding of adversity has always been keener than most. But he left the arena in a wheelchair having completed his floor routine despite the inconvenience of a dislocated knee.

Behan's back story has been common currency since the London Games. The discovery of a tumour on his leg seemed to end his gymnastic ambitions at the age of ten and complications in surgery left him temporarily unable to walk.

When eventually well enough to train again, a fall from the high bar caused a brain injury that would affect his balance and co-ordination skills. Will there be a purer manifestation of the Olympic spirit this next fortnight?

The disparate nature of an Olympics community means that the stories of the Games often represent glaring contradictions.

You can be blinded by the celebrity of Bolt or Nadal or Neymar and all the naked giganticism on show. You can be dispirited by the wooden symbolism of an International Olympic Committee (IOC) whose Council members get a ¤950 per diem for every 24 hours spent spreading their guff about 'legacy' when so many cariocas have been bulldozed out of the Olympic path so that vast, soon-to-be obsolete temples might be built.

You can feel lost in the face of all the seemingly habitual deceit, the relentless press of commercialism, the sense that everything extraordinary we see at these gatherings represents some kind of suspicious aberration.

The truth about the modern Olympics is that, without the unsung, it becomes little more than a memorial service, a venal show of strength from those for whom it represents no more than a career box to tick en route to the next big pay-cheque.

Would the golfers who stayed away choose to sidestep Augusta next April if Zika had its passport stamped in America's Deep South? Hardly.

In a sense, the purest heroism is to be found in the stories of those for whom mere qualification represents some Himalayan challenge to which they dedicate themselves for irrational chunks of their young lives.

Two movies watched en route to Rio took Olympic history to polar extremes. RACE is the story of how Jesse Owens ruined the Berlin Games in '36 for Adolf Hitler by winning a record four golds just before the Nazi's Aryan race policy lurched into genocide.

Eddie the Eagle was, of course, light relief by comparison. The tale of a Cheltenham plasterer who became arguably the star of the '88 Winter Games in Calgary by dint, essentially, of being historically bad.

Owens and Eddie Edwards are both Olympians, even if representing layers of that status that couldn't possibly be further apart.

A year after Atlanta, Cathal O'Grady turned pro as a cruiserweight, winning 16 of his 18 contests before a worrying brain scan forced him into retirement. He was anything but the mug that the cold stats of his Olympic story might have implied.

His room-mate in '96 was Ireland's flag-bearer, Francie Barrett. And, in the circumstances, that was a God-send. Because it was Barrett's humour that carried him through the emptiest of village days and O'Grady tells a beautiful story of how that help, in time, became reciprocal. One day, Francie returned to their room with a great mountain of postcards, each one needing to be decorated with a message for home.

Helping

"I'd been helping him with his writing in training camp, so I just showed Francie something basic to write'" recalled O'Grady. "The same thing on each card. Just something along the lines of 'From the Olympic Games - hi from Francie!'

"So he's writing away and, next thing, he asks me how to spell driving test centre? 'What do you need that for?' I asked.

"'I'm doing the oul test when I go home so a postcard mightn't do me any harm!' he says."

Atlanta doesn't quite come back to him as a nightmare then. When he thinks of high points in his life, Cathal O'Grady says that, for all the pain those Games brought him, he'd still struggle to find anything that would top being present for the four-minute standing ovation afforded one man at the '96 Olympic boxing finals.

That man was Muhammad Ali. An Olympian about whom the five-ringed symbolism never lied.

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