Friday 24 January 2020

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Paul O'Donovan's only rivals for Irish sportsperson of the decade are Katie Taylor and Rory McIlroy'

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‘Paul O’Donovan knew lots about sacrifice and the pain and crushing hard work needed to make it to the top. But it wasn’t his style to make a fuss about that or anything else’
‘Paul O’Donovan knew lots about sacrifice and the pain and crushing hard work needed to make it to the top. But it wasn’t his style to make a fuss about that or anything else’
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Paul O'Donovan is the Irish sportsperson of the decade. That's only my opinion. But aren't all these year-end and decade-end accolades only matters of opinion? There's no flawless empirical method to decide who's achieved most.

If international achievement is the best yardstick then O'Donovan, with four world titles and an Olympic silver, is pretty well placed.

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His only real rivals are Katie Taylor, three amateur and two professional world titles and an Olympic gold, and Rory McIlroy, four Majors and 95 weeks at world number one. Both would make fine choices.

But there's a question mark over the strength in depth of Taylor's sport, which wasn't even an Olympic discipline at the start of the decade, and also the dubious judging in her fight against Delfine Persoon this year.

McIlroy has to be disqualified because his continued failure to carry a tricolour onto the final green while doing Riverdance with his caddy and singing 'Fields of Athenry' is an insult to the memory of the famine dead. OK, I don't really have any bulletproof argument for ruling against Rory.

But I can see Paul O'Donovan's club from my front window and walk to it in less than a minute and these judgements are personal after all.

This isn't the only reason the Skibbereen rower's achievements belong in the very top bracket. There is his complete dominance as an individual. His winning margin in the 2016 world lightweight single sculls final was the second biggest of the decade, his time in the 2017 final has only been bettered twice in the last 20 years.

In neither race was O'Donovan put to the pin of his collar. He is undoubtedly the finest lightweight rower in the world today and one of the finest ever seen.

His four world titles and one Olympic silver bear a certain resemblance to the three world titles and Olympic silver won by fellow Corkonian Sonia O'Sullivan. The man from Lisheen is an aquatic Sonia. He possesses the same fierce single-minded competitive drive and prodigious physical stamina.

If the single sculls were an Olympic event he would have won gold in Rio and added four world titles on the trot. But as it's not he turned to the double sculls in the run-up to the last Olympics and made his name there.

Another reason why O'Donovan gets my vote as star of the decade is that his reputation has been entirely made in it. Both Taylor and McIlroy were on the public radar as it began but O'Donovan wasn't. Which was understandable given that this time 10 years ago he was a 15-year-old schoolboy in St Fachtna's, Skibbereen.

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Paul, left, and Gary O'Donovan of Ireland celebrate winning the Lightweight Men's Double Sculls Final on day seven of the World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Seb Daly

Five years later he wasn't much better known. But on the morning of September 5, 2015 in the little French village of Aiguebelette came what would prove to be one of the pivotal Irish sporting moments of the decade.

It scarcely seemed like one at the time with Paul and brother Gary scraping into the very last Olympic qualifying place, just 0.28 of a second ahead of Greece. They seemed destined to join the legion of performers whose triumph had consisted of merely making it as far as the games.

Unheralded, unfancied and still largely unknown in the run-up to Rio, the O'Donovans left Brazil as two of the country's best-known sportsmen and perhaps its most beloved double act since the heyday of Ray Lynam and Philomena Begley.

Their silver medal was an outstanding achievement, yet they were disappointed at not defeating the apparently invincible French duo who finished just 0.63 of a second ahead of them.

That was borne out when the following year in Plovdiv the O'Donovans won the world title in the third fastest time since 2000.

The following year came another world title, in Austria. Except this time it wasn't Gary O'Donovan in the boat with Paul, it was Fintan McCarthy a 22-year-old from Skibbereen who'd forced his way on to the team with a series of superb performances.

It made no difference to either the result or the exceptional nature of the performance, the O'Donovan-McCarthy combination's winning margin was the biggest in 13 years.

Gary O'Donovan is world class. Fintan McCarthy is world class. So is Fintan's twin Jake, who could also battle for the second place in the Olympic boat.

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Rory McIlory

But Paul is, to use soccer parlance, different class. Irish rowing has a proud history but it has never seen anyone quite like him. His physical capacities border on the freakish, even in a sport which tests its elite competitors to the maximum like few others.

Ireland are favourites for gold in Tokyo but, talented as the others are, it is the presence of Paul O'Donovan which accounts for that.

When the O'Donovans won their first round race in Rio, RTE didn't bother broadcasting it live. It clashed with Paddy Barnes' opening fight and the O'Donovans' contest was judged less important than the post-fight analysis being conducted as the West Cork men sculled along the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Copacabana.

Amateur boxing was where it was at back then. It had been in the doldrums but the performances of Barnes, Kenneth Egan and Darren Sutherland in the 2008 Olympics had generated a momentum which made it the apple of the Irish sporting public's eye.

Rowing? It had been a contender in the past but by 2016 a decade of underachievement had seen it become practically forgotten.

The breakthrough of the O'Donovans seemed to provide rowing with the same kind of boost which boxing received from the heroics of Beijing.

Since then there have been two world single sculls titles for Sanita Puspure, world gold for the O'Donovans' clubmates Mark O'Donovan and Shane O'Driscoll in the lightweight pair, world silver for the double sculls duo of Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle and a host of World Cup and European medals.

Obviously the success of those rowers is based on their individual efforts, yet the morale boost provided by Rio has acted as a kind of X factor.

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Sanita Puspure. Photo: INPHO

For one thing, it brought the O'Donovans' extraordinary local coach Dominic Casey into the national set-up where he has flourished, winning the 2018 World Coach of the Year.

At next year's Olympics, Puspure, the double sculls and lightweight sculls all have a good chance of gold. In Tokyo RTE will not be skipping any rowing heats.

Paul O'Donovan's part in transforming his sport's fortunes is another reason his decade mattered more than anyone else's.

There's also the dash and style with which he has conducted himself. I cherish the memory of Joanne Cantwell's flabbergasted expression after the first of the famous O'Donovan interviews from Rio. She didn't know what to make of this. Was it even allowed?

It says a lot about the usual constipated style of sporting interviews that such a stir was caused by a couple of country boys merely talking the way they would have done if they were with friends and family in Skibbereen.

Irish sport stars didn't usually do that, they tended to assume an 'interview voice' the way my parents' generation used to put on a 'telephone voice' when using that awkward new-fangled contraption.

Paul and Gary's wit and charm saw them become media darlings and they did the chat show round. Some fake concern was expressed at the effect this might have on their eye of the tiger or whatever.

This partly proceeded from jealousy but there may also have been a feeling that the lads were enjoying themselves too much. Where was all the stuff about sacrifice and inner torment and the bitter invocation of critics they'd proved wrong?

The O'Donovans had fun in the limelight, got back in the water and proved it was possible to win a world title after going on The Graham Norton Show.

They probably also influenced other sports stars to be a little less uptight and to let more of their real personality show through.

Paul O'Donovan knew lots about sacrifice and the pain and crushing hard work needed to make it to the top.

But it wasn't his style to make a fuss about that or anything else. His no-nonsense ethos is that of Skibbereen Rowing Club, an unpretentious rural blue collar club making a big mark in a sport whose public face had for a long time been that of Oxford and Cambridge and Harvard.

If you want to learn exactly where he's come from and where he's at, pick up Something In The Water, a history of the club written by Kieran McCarthy who, as sports editor of The Southern Star in Skibb, covered this story long before anyone else and in much more depth.

It would make a fine Christmas present for the sports' fan in your life. Alternatively you could buy it for yourself after Christmas and, as it's a paperback, tuck it inside that disappointing hardback autobiography you got as a present so no-one's feelings will be hurt.

Ladies and gentlemen, Paul O'Donovan. Some man for one man and the star of the decade.

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