See their tears. Feel their pain. Come to understand just how much it means, how much it hurts. Because it can hurt a lot.
These are the athletes who won’t come back to a welcome party, and no TV crew will ask them for an interview at the airport. As they look around the Olympic village this week, there will be many others just like them — men and women whose dreams were shattered on sport’s biggest stage — but it could still feel like the loneliest place on earth.
It was a little before 3.0pm on Monday at Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre in Tokyo when Liam Jegou came our way. The 25-year-old had bleary eyes that looked to have shed many tears while he’d been cocooned in the athletes’ area.
Jegou was the fifth man to set off on the rapids during the C1 slalom semi-final, and he was fastest of all through 20 of the 25 gates — the kind of run that could, were he to complete it and then repeat it an hour later, earn him an Olympic medal.
But then it all went wrong. He lost his racing line and just about snuck through his next gate, the loss of balance amplifying his mid-race anxiety into a moment of panic. Jegou missed the next gate. His Olympics was over in an instant.
After drifting aimlessly to the finish he slumped forward in his canoe, head in hands. How could he explain this to others when he couldn’t make sense of it himself?
“There’s a lot of work put into this, a lifetime of work,” he told us. “To mess it up on one of the final gates, I’m disgusted with myself.”
For some, words just can’t be found, not when the hurt is too raw, the pain too close to the surface. Forty minutes after Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan crossed the line at Sea Forest Waterway on Thursday, winning Ireland’s first ever Olympic gold in rowing, Sanita Puspure finished her single sculls semi-final in fifth place, seven seconds outside the qualifying positions. It might as well have been an ocean away.
Puspure had been here before, finishing fourth in quarter-finals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, but this time felt different. She came to Tokyo as back-to-back world champion, back-to-back European champion. It’s three years until the next Olympics. She turns 40 in December.
She did not come through the mixed zone after the race, enquiries with team personnel relaying that she was “devastated”. You could understand why. It was hard to shake the feeling — one Puspure will have known the moment she stepped out of that boat — that this was her last chance.
But that’s the thing about the Olympics: for every dream realised, a dozen more are disembowelled. That’s the ratio these athletes sign up for, hopeful in the face of outlandish odds.
Throw a stone in the post-race melting pot that is the mixed zone and you’ll likely hit an athlete in floods of tears, brought on by the best or — more often — worst moment of their careers.
On Friday night at the Olympic Stadium, Irish 800m runners Nadia Power and Síofra Cléirigh Buttner tried to explain what went wrong. They had both run under 2:01 earlier this year but here, where it mattered most, they could only manage 2:03.74 and 2:04.62. They finished seventh in their respective heats, as did Louise Shanahan, the rest of the world unmercifully motoring away from them over the final 150 metres. Shanahan was upbeat, having run closer to her personal best than the others. Power and Cléirigh Buttner looked inconsolable, the watery glint in their eyes a tell for a tidal wave of emotion raging within.
“It’s hard to come to terms with that,” said Power. But eventually you have to.
For some, it’s a matter of days. For others, it’s weeks, months, perhaps even years. Emmet Brennan has no idea where he stands on that particular spectrum, but the Dubliner knows he’s not remotely out the other side of it.
When we spoke in Tokyo yesterday afternoon, the light heavyweight boxer was six days removed from his first-round loss to Uzbekistan’s Dilshod Ruzmetov. The frustration and sadness that erupted during his post-fight interview with Des Cahill had mellowed, but it was still there — has been all week.
“I’ve been quite down, a little bit gutted,” he said. “It’s hard to accept: you train your whole life to get here and my body just wasn’t playing ball the last few months.”
He had dealt with tendon damage in both elbows and an impingement in his shoulder during the build-up, and a rib injury in recent weeks added insult to those injuries as Brennan was unable to spar since his qualifying event in June. And that ring in Tokyo’s Kokugikan Arena was no place for the rusty.
Only yesterday could he bring himself to watch his fight back, the first step of grieving his loss being to finally face up to it. Looking back triggered more frustration: things he should have done, new regrets rearing their ugly heads.
“I had to accept the situation I’m in: my body wasn’t 100 per cent fit,” he said. “Today is the first day where I’m trying to come around, trying to get into a routine and enjoy the rest of my experience here.”
He doesn’t regret his interview, nor the tears and sadness that flowed. Brennan could have chosen to bypass it but, as he puts it, “It’s your only chance to say your piece, the most real moment you’re going to get.”
He was doing fine until Cahill brought up what making the Olympics had meant to him. In that moment his mind flashed back to his parents, whose roof he’d lived under for the past few years in Dublin’s north inner city as the 30-year-old lived on a shoestring budget to chase this dream.
He thought of his mother, Bernie, who gets so nervous during his fights that she leaves the house to walk in Fairview Park. He thought of his father, Christy, who suffered a major heart attack last year and was lucky to still be around to watch his son become an Olympian — extracting as much joy from the experience as Emmet himself.
“It made me think of the sacrifices they had made to get me here,” he said. “Then I couldn’t hold back.”
In the days after his loss, Brennan reckoned he got over a thousand messages on his phone, a tsunami of goodwill he just couldn’t face until this weekend. He blocked it all out during the week, turned off his phone, and only yesterday did he finally start sifting through them, responding one by one.
“It doesn’t make up for getting beaten,” he says. “But it makes you feel a small bit better.”
David Gillick knows exactly how he feels. An Olympian in 2008, these days he’s on the other side of the mixed zone in Tokyo, the first person Irish athletes meet as they walk off the track.
The former 400m runner remembers the heightened sense of expectation and anxiety that accompanied his Games experience, the gut-wrenching sucker punch when things went awry. At the Beijing Olympics his first clue that this was a whole different ball game to World Championships came in the dining hall, an excited swell of noise rippling across the vast room when LeBron James and Kobe Bryant walked in. “It’s just a bigger deal,” he says. “The expectation all comes with that.”
Gillick went to Beijing having smashed the Irish record, clocking 45.12, but once there he under-performed badly, running 45.83 in his heat. One and done.
“Awful,” he says of those moments after the race. “I was devastated, absolutely devastated. You feel you’ve let so many people down. For me it wasn’t something that just went away. It hurt for a long time.”
For the first week of these Tokyo Games he’s been stationed at RTÉ’s main broadcast hub, but from Friday until the end he’ll be trackside in the Olympic stadium — a friendly, familiar face for the Irish competitors. From Ciara Mageean to Nadia Power to Sarah Lavin, he’s had to coax a chat out of many crestfallen athletes in recent years. It never gets any easier.
“One thing I noticed out here, there’s been a lot of tears,” he says. “Maybe it’s because as a human race we’ve had a lot in the last two years and there’s a lot more gone into this, trying to maintain those levels of work. Sometimes we forget sportspeople are human — normal people who have immense talent.”
More than most sporting events, this Olympics has stripped bare any illusion of invincibility among the world’s best. Simone Biles came to Tokyo virtually unbeatable, a gymnast who had re-invented the very parameters of her sport.
At Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Tuesday, quizzical looks beamed around the arena as the 24-year-old American botched her first rotation, managing one-and-a-half twists (instead of two-and-a-half) on her trusty Amanar vault before an off-kilter landing. That was the last competitive action we saw from her.
Biles was there, alright, roaring support and rallying her US team-mates. But the world’s best gymnast couldn’t bring herself to get back out there, admitting later that she had “freaked out in a high-stress situation”, telling a trainer, “I don’t want to do it, I’m done.”
She was asked what her goal was for the rest of the Games. “To focus on my wellbeing,” she said. “There is more to life than gymnastics.”
When Biles was surrounded, engaged by her team-mates, she would smile and exude positivity. When she was left alone, she would stare into space, looking utterly forlorn. Her trainers said nothing was amiss physically, but it was notable as she stood and watched others compete — and during the medal ceremony — that she put virtually no weight through her right foot, with only the toe touching the ground, as if testing to check the temperature of a pond.
Maybe something was amiss physically that set off her psychological turmoil. Maybe the anguish and expectation she was feeling led to an injury during that first, mistimed vault. Whatever the root cause, it seemed a sensible choice to step aside, Biles conscious of doing what was best for her team, and her own health.
As she stood on the podium with them, silver medals around their necks, listening to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (played in place of the Russian national anthem, a curious form of punishment for state-sponsored doping) you could see torment etched on her face.
This, along with the individual all-around, was an event where Biles was expected to deliver gold for her country, for US gymnastics — a system that had once betrayed her and so many other young women, one that failed to guard its brightest talents (Biles included) against the sexual abuse inflicted by former team doctor Larry Nassar.
The hope is that we see Biles compete again, but the crippling pressure of carrying a nation’s hopes is a burden that could break even the strongest mind.
Just ask Naomi Osaka, the poster girl for the Games and world number two who, after a two-month break from competitive tennis while prioritising her mental health, was beaten in the third round here by Marketa Vondrousova, ranked 42nd in the world. “I’m disappointed in every loss,” said Osaka. “But this one sucks more.”
Float around various events and you could find similar stories on every court, every track, every pitch. Like that of Dutch rower Marieke Keijser, who was on course for a gold medal in the women’s lightweight double sculls on Thursday with team-mate Ilse Paulis until the final few strokes, when Keijser caught a crab (accidentally dug her oar in the water), which stunted their momentum and saw them demoted to third.
After almost seven minutes of racing, less than half a second separated the Dutch from the Italian gold medallists, who screamed in stunned surprise at their fortuitous victory. Keijser put her hands to her head in disbelief, Paulis — already an Olympic gold medallist, unlike Keijser — simply bowed her head in quiet disappointment.
A few hours later, I asked how they had been processing the situation. “Of course it hurts, you come here to get the best results,” said Keijser. “We were really fast, really good, but it’s not this race that makes the experience so difficult, it was the last five metres. But I’m more than proud with the bronze medal.”
And she had good reason to be. It was her first Olympic medal, and she was aware how much more cruel that twist of fate could have been, given they finished just one hundredth of a second ahead of the fourth-placed Brits.
But that’s the unwritten rule you sign up for at the Games: a willingness to have your heart broken as the whole world watches, accepting there will be little coming your way if you finish outside the medals, at least financially.
That, however, is a very different thing to not being rewarded at all.
More than 70 per cent of Olympic athletes only make it to one Games, which in the aftermath can raise a troubling question for those who fall short of their goals: what if this is it?
For Brennan, the chance to compete here held far more significance than his result inside the ring. When he took out a Credit Union loan two years ago to commit to full-time training, believing he could become an Olympian, he gambled on his own gifts, his graft, at a time when life was headed down a humdrum road he’d rather not be travelling. Amid his pain, there was victory to be found in defeat.
“If I didn’t come back I’d still be working a job I don’t enjoy and living a lifestyle that doesn’t really fit the person I am,” he said. “It’s changed a lot of my life; it’s changed me as a person. All the downs and adversity you have to go through to get here, it builds character and it’s going to help me later in life. One hundred per cent, it was worth it.”