Saturday 24 March 2018

O'Donovans have a supreme self-assurance that can be a blueprint for a modern Ireland

Gary and Paul O'Donovan of Ireland in action during the Men's Lightweight Double Sculls heats in Lagoa Stadium, Copacabana. Photo: Sportsfile
Gary and Paul O'Donovan of Ireland in action during the Men's Lightweight Double Sculls heats in Lagoa Stadium, Copacabana. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

There are hardy bucks, and then there are real hardy bucks. There's fellas who are Saturday night hardy, and fellas who are Sunday morning hardy. Two different animals altogether.

The O'Donovan brothers charmed us last week by laying on some of the same shtick - so to speak - that the Hardy Bucks have slathered all over their TV show in recent years. Country lads, small-town boys, acting the maggot and talking the local cant.

For Paul and Gary, it was presumably their way of mitigating the stress. They were in the deepest waters to be found in all of sport, an Olympic Games, where the pressure is oceanic and many an athlete gets buckled by the bends.

So they buttered the bread with a heavy west Cork accent and a rural comic turn whenever they were faced by microphones. It was probably a defence mechanism. Maybe in their hearts and minds they needed to go back home, where the comfort is to be found when you're a long way from your parish.

They weren't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes but their own. In any event, they weren't fooling anybody. These lads were obviously the real deal. They look and sound like fellas who'd enjoy a good Saturday night, but there was no doubting they were Sunday morning hardy.

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They have faced the music on many a Sunday morning. Down to the rowing club of a winter's dawn when everyone else is under the duvet, putting the boat on the water and cranking up the pain.

The sport of rowing is a house of pain. It demands of its soldiers a willingness to hurt themselves, to accept the torture, to absorb the excruciating ritual day after day after day. Not many people volunteer for physical punishment at any time. Fewer still volunteer for it as part of their daily life.

But, as it happens, the O'Donovans have been absolutely blessed. Fortune does not always favour the brave, not in this sport, and certainly not in the great Olympic quest. For the road to a medal is littered with the husks of old athletes who collapsed along the way.

They too rose at dawn, when the world wasn't watching, and did their daily penance in the hope they might earn the ultimate deliverance. They earned it alright, but they never received it. And the world never stopped to notice, one way or another. They just faded back into civilian life with their stories and their wounds.

In 1996 the lightweight four of Neville Maxwell, Tony O'Connor, Derek Holland and Sam Lynch finished fourth at the Atlanta Games. Maxwell was in the RTE studios as a pundit last Friday. The O'Donovans' success seemed to re-open a 20-year old wound for Maxwell. He was moved to tears by the sight of Irish rowers finally winning Olympic metal. The '96 fourth, and the 1976 fourth by Seán Drea in Montreal, could be consigned to the dustbin, he said.

Niall O'Toole won Irish rowing's first world championship gold medal, in 1991. O'Toole was a powerhouse talent and a star in the making: an Olympic medal was a real possibility. He competed at the Barcelona, Atlanta and Athens Games and came home with fistfuls of frustration.

In 2004 Sam Lynch and Gearóid Towey were among the favourites for a medal and were devastated not to make the final. In 2000 Sinéad Jennings won a world championship bronze in the lightweight singles and, a year later, a world championship gold. A natural athlete of prodigious ability, she could have racked up five Olympiads, from Sydney to Rio. For all sorts of reasons she made just one - Rio, at the age of 39. And she made the final too, last Friday, in a boat with Claire Lambe. Then the fairytale crashed against the savage reality of an Olympic final.

These were and are world-class rowers with world-level medals to prove it. We don't have the exact stats, but it is seemingly easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for an athlete to win an Olympic medal. For generations of our best rowers, the Olympics has been a Via Dolorosa.

But for Paul and Gary O'Donovan, it has been a yellow brick road. At their first Games, they've won a silver medal. And they've won it at the ages respectively of 22 and 23. It is young, particularly in a sport that normally demands years of attritional maturing, not just as teens but as adults: deepening the layers of foundational stamina one gruelling session at a time, one gruelling season after another, like layers of geological sediment piled onto the musculoskeletal landscape of their bodies.

The pay-off frequently only arrives when the rowers are into their late 20s, early 30s. The fabled journey, for good measure, is supposed also to be laden with illness, injury and sundry hard luck stories.

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But for some reason the ruthless Olympic taskmasters did not demand or extract this toll from the O'Donovans. Perhaps they just took a shine to these irrepressible sunshine boys. They demanded just the normal measure of suffering, not the usual sadistic tariff. And the lads were more than happy to oblige.

What was striking about their performance in the final was their psychic confidence during the greatest test of their young lives. "We all fluffed our lines in Olympic finals," remarked Niall O'Toole Friday night on RTE. These lads however took to it like ducks to water, as it were. They literally sailed through it, blithe and undaunted.

And maybe the confidence ultimately came from their confidence in their own identity. During those media interviews they radiated rock solid security in who they are, and where they are from. Perhaps it wasn't an act at all, but an entirely natural expression of inner contentment.

Or maybe it was just pure physical talent. The only time they wobbled was when they got out of the boat. The lactic acid was crippling their legs. But one could visibly recognise that those are legs built for rowing, with massively powerful thighs for the job of propelling a boat fast through water.

"These two Irish boys are incredibly strong," remarked James Cracknell on the BBC's race commentary. And Cracknell should know, having won two Olympic gold medals himself. "Maybe not quite the same sculling standard as the French, but they are incredible athletes."

One hopes it's not stretching it to say that the O'Donovans could symbolise some sort of modern ideal for this country, achieving a global standard of excellence whilst retaining an essential Irishness. Being brilliant without the self-importance; ferociously competitive without losing their sense of humour; aspiring to be the best internationally from the heartland of their parish and community.

In other words, keeping one foot at home and the other on top of the world.

Sunday Indo Sport

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