Friday 23 February 2018

Vincent Hogan: Applause from 'Late Late' the perfect metaphor for how much we really care about Olympians

O'Donovans and Murphy deserve their moment - but how many will be there for their next event?

The O’Donovan brothers won silver in Rio
The O’Donovan brothers won silver in Rio
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The O'Donovans looked 'made men' on the Late Late couch last Friday night with their Saville Row style and smiles that could light up coal mines.

Ryan Tubridy introduced them as "international media superstars" and, on some strictly notional level, maybe that's how people now see the Lisheen brothers. When you're exchanging bon mots with film stars in The Green Room, it must be easy to fall under a misconception that you might never again be intimate with the notion of struggle.

But for the O'Donovans and Annalise Murphy, Friday night was the high arc of any post-Rio celebrity run.

The real legacy of an Olympics is emotional confusion. If anything, hindsight makes all the fuss created seem faintly bogus. The Late Late, as such, represents the ultimate podium position. Getting there is national validation, deliverance to a platter of over-ripe platitudes detonating quickfire ovations for our returning heroes.

It is the stage-directed thank you from Official Ireland.

Then a drink with the stars and, well, best wishes with the rest of your life. For many Olympians, next stop might be a job employment bureau but - for one night at least in Dublin 4 - you feel cradled in the nation's affection. In time, it will come to feel like a gentle swindle.

When the O'Donovans next row or Murphy next sails, who exactly will be watching? Unpalatable as this might seem just now, a laser race in Dun Laoghaire harbour still has all the national pull of a seminar on the protection of Dutch Elms. Ditto a July Saturday at the National Rowing Championships.

The last time Michael Conlan boxed in Ireland, fewer than 400 die-hards pitched up in the National Stadium. Maybe two months before Rio and five Olympians on show in a test event against Russia, yet fewer people in attendance than you'd get in a Salthill carpark for some boyos doing doughnuts in their Corollas.

Conlan was the victim of some dubious officiating in Rio, no question, thus hastening his imminent departure to the professional game.

And, on Friday night, the studio audience loved hearing him talk about an opponent who seemed determined to slow a cascade of punches with his head. They erupted with loud hilarity at his description of Vladimir Nikitin "just walking into my fists" or "eating punches for fun" and delivered an ovation after watching a replay of his somewhat indelicate post-fight outburst.

"Were you robbed?" Tubridy probed solicitously.

"I think so".

"By who?"

"I think I was robbed by the judges!"

Cue yet another ovation and the pounding soundtrack of a people seemingly outraged that one of our boxers could be deemed beaten in the Olympic ring by an opponent (that he was Russian probably fed the decibels) who could have been plucked straight out of Madame Tussauds.

The way Conlan told it, he might as well have been home mowing the lawn for all the chance he stood of getting a decision.

And, just momentarily, you could believe - applause splashing around him - that the concept of an Olympic sport with pretty grave questions to answer about its governance might be something that we - as a sporting nation - now feel energised about. But this was simply showbiz, a drumbeat exercise in playing the crowd and moving on.

And that, frankly, is the perfect definition of a modern Olympics.

There are real stories to be pursued post-Rio, but there is no market for them. Sitting in the Late Late audience were Sinead Lynch and Claire Lambe, a sculling partnership that contested an Olympic final the same day the O'Donovans won silver.

Last week, Lambe tweeted how she was "Feeling utterly let down by those in charge at @RowingIreland!" after hearing that their coach, Don McLachlan, was not to have his contract renewed.

There is disquiet in badminton circles too at the loss of national coach, Irwansyah, to his native Indonesia, Badminton Ireland having - it seems - initially refused to even countenance upgrading an annual salary of just €30,000.

Boxing let Billy Walsh go and, if it's not extremely careful, Zaur Antia might yet follow.

Yet, apart from the medal love-ins and hourly updates on a nightmare unfolding for Pat Hickey, where exactly were we looking?

Rio, it is true, proved a shocking episode for our boxers, but did they really need the swallowed sanctimony of that International Olympic Committee missive about investigating a story of illegal betting in the camp?

Bad enough to have the Michael O'Reilly circus as an ugly preamable to our boxers' poorest Olympics since Athens, but the betting angle is only interesting if the boxers in question were - essentially - placing money on direct opponents.

There is no confirmation that they were, no confirmation even that their betting was on the boxing tournament itself. Yet last week's RTÉ Six One News had the two unnamed boxers riding side-saddle with the Hickey story, thereby running higher in their bulletins than the awful toll of an earthquake in central Italy.

Bear in mind that betting on events by Olympic athletes is not illegal. How could it be? It is prohibited by the IOC under its code of ethics, which is rather different. And Heaven forbid anyone cross swords with an organisation that represents such a perpetual study in piety?

The Peter O'Leary betting story in London was relevant only because his bets, placed four years earlier in Beijing, had been on a direct opponent. He won €3,600 on the outcome of a medal race that, at the time of the transaction, he did not know if he would be contesting.

O'Leary, incidentally, was not cleared as some close to him still regularly declare. He escaped with a warning.

The boxers? According to the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, the two in question "may have placed a bet on an event during the Rio Olympic Games". Furthermore, the IABA stresses it "would be very disappointed" if they had "engaged in a prohibited activity under the Conditions of Participation".

And the IOC?

Whilst the investigation remains "ongoing", they propose participation in an education programme for the two boxers on "best practice for sports people". Think about that. This from the people who still cosied up to Putin despite a torrent of evidence exposing Russia's state-sponsored doping.

For all we know, the bets in question might have been on Henrik Stenson or Usain Bolt, yet - for a time here - this story ran higher in our news bulletins than that of hundreds dying beneath Italian rubble.

This maybe captures what an Olympics does better than any other gig in sport. It makes us flounder, paralysing faculties, fooling us into believing that anything attached to the five-ringed circus has a status that out-weighs real life.

On Friday in Dublin, the O'Donovans, Murphy and Conlan shared billing with two handsome movie stars, a purposefully camp comedian and a politician who by his own admission hasn't yet quite come to grips with, well, politics.

And that's probably about as good as it gets in the life of an Irish Olympian. Recognition on national TV, followed by admittance to a roped-off area of Coppers, Ryan even promising that he'll 'see you again in four years time'.

But tomorrow the world around you dawns as pre-occupied as ever.

Irish Independent

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