Saturday 16 December 2017

O'Leary staying silent as questions get louder

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The Dorset sky fluctuated between opal blue and metal yesterday, the wind in Weymouth harbour tossing trick questions out like a Vegas dealer with a loaded deck.

It can feel a long way from the Olympics here when your morning starts in Waterloo with railway staff handing out free ice-pops, because sailing people have their own language and dress-sense, their own ways.

The Olympic regatta is actually based out of Portland, the boats coming in from battle by Wyke Regis under the vast grass hill into which the Verne prison is embedded.

A former navy helicopter base, its broad hangars have now been taken over by Sunseeker as a maternity ward to some of the most exotic nautical toys desired by billionaires. The Olympic campus here has a feel of easy prosperity.

Peter O'Leary and David Burrows were back out on the west course again yesterday and, if their Star results proved more moderate on day two of competition, they remain very real medal contenders on the south coast of England. Placed 14th and fifth in yesterday's two races, they now lie fifth overall.

"Just got the wrong side of everything really in the first race," explained Burrows later. "So we're kind of happy to have pulled something back in the second. There's still a lot to play for. It's the south course next which will be a little further out to sea. The breeze will probably be behaving a little differently, but we're looking forward to it."

Back on terra firma last night, O'Leary was again asked about the contentious issue of bets made while competing in Beijing and, again, he chose to stride by media without answering.

This time he had his hood down and sun-glasses pushed into his hair but, again, there was no eye-contact with any of those seeking his attention.

None of this feels comfortable. O'Leary is clearly no scoundrel. In fact, in many ways, he's lived a model life propelled by an insatiable drive to do something memorable with his life.

This might even be the Corkman's moment. Nobody is surprised to see the Irish boat close to medal position. Nobody doubts the honour with which they race.

Yet, out of the water, he looks spun out and a little careworn now. The tragicomedy effect of his hooded, eyes-to-the-floor march past media on Sunday evening was to energise, not tranquilise, the cacophony of questions.

And the statement issued by unidentified 'supporters' proved a mix of inaccuracies and slight twists on reality. It also, remarkably, implied that he had bet inappropriately in Beijing.

This was crisis-management from Hell. A firework tossed on a hot stove.

The hunch here is that, if he is guilty of anything, it's nothing more sinister than naivete. Trouble is, his silence means that what unfolds each day by the Weymouth quay-side is a recurring melodrama with no end. In the absence of response, the questions just grow louder, more hectoring.

Every evening he walks silently by, vanishing into a private coccoon, turning himself into a fugitive.

On RTE yesterday James O'Callaghan, the sailor's High Performance manager here, was asked if there was a danger that, in the event of O'Leary and Burrows winning an Olympic medal, the Corkman might have to return his? O'Callaghan chose not to answer and, frankly, you couldn't really blame him.

For even if O'Leary's alleged misdeed seems in the lower end of Olympic sins, there is that awful asterisk under his Olympic participation now. If proven to have contravened the Olympic charter, however innocently, punishment could be penal.

So there is an unease to the little after-race circus that has begun playing out in this gilded corner of Dorset.

After racing, the mechanics of debrief are applied with regimental discipline. Each boat returns its GPS system to a tiny quay-side office, then the competitors must double back and navigate the narrow, rectangular chute in which media, lower castes kept behind barriers, can enquire about their day on the water.

Mostly, it is smiley, folksy banter between friends. The Swiss journalists high-five their sailors. The New Zealand thing is to do a testosterone dance, their racers rattling through like tea-trolleys, all stubble, teeth and faux disdain for journalists interrupting their post-race snack. The British exchange tips a hat to daily worship, particularly if the one stopping to gab happens to be either Ben Ainslie or Iain Percy.

After 'mixed zone' obligations, the sailors then sequester themselves in their own Olympic offices, bare metal containers fitted out with essentials. There they digest the maths of what they've done and, presumably, then go home and fall down in a heap.

For O'Leary, though, the vain grilling continues, the discomfiting march past loud, enquiring voices. He didn't wear the hood last night but his head remained firmly down and his eyes stayed welded to his shoes.

The shellfire continues in Paradise.

Irish Independent

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