Ireland’s Olympic Games have finally officially kicked off after Skibbereen brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan streaked to rowing silver, roared by a passionate large Irish support in Rio, writes Will Downing.
At the Estadio Lagoa, the specially-built stadium at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon north of Ipanema, the O’Donovans surged up from fifth place to claim the first ever rowing medal won by Ireland in Olympic history – the 30th claimed by Ireland since debuting in its own right since 1924.
Drawn furthest away from the crowd in Lane 1, it was a typically reserved start for the Cork men, lying fifth at the first checkpoint a quarter of the way through at 500 metres – but despite this, it was very tight between the top five, with the USA and France to the forefront.
But by halfway, the O’Donovans had moved up to third and not only successfully defended their place, they actually overtook the American crew, who had been leading with 1000m to go.
The Irish pair strengthened their position as the race wore on, and with second place safe inside the final 200m, they put a big push on to grab gold. As it happened, world champions France held on through their crew of Pierre Houin and Jeremie Azou, with Norway third, represented by Kristoffer Brun and Are Strandli.
The French winning margin of victory was just half a second, with the winners timed at 6:30.70 to Ireland’s 6:31.23. Norway finished 0.16 down on 6:31.39.
It’s magnificent glory for the European champions, who provide Ireland with a sixth medalling Olympic sport, after athletics, boxing, show-jumping, sailing and swimming.
Gary O’Donovan was in best voice after the success: “We’re delighted that we’re Ireland’s first ever Olympic rowing medallists. We tried to win the gold medal and we really gave it everything out there.
“We’re delighted to come home with any medal at all, and a silver one is fantastic.
“We wanted to go as fast as we could be stick it out in the middle of the field by the middle of the race, and then try and move on in the second half.
“I think we did that quite well!
“We knew last year that when we qualified we would have to beat a very good French crew that won the World Championships, and since then they’ve gone and made their crew stronger again.
“So to come so close to beating them and to win a silver medal is a brilliant result for us.
“We kept our heads down in our own boat and gave the odd look to get our bearings. We knew where we were in the race the whole time. Being in an outside lane wasn’t an issue.
“It’s been a great year. We’re European champions and Olympics silver-medallists and hopefully there’s more to come in the future.
“It was our goal since we qualified. We finished 11th in the World Championships and our goal was to win the Olympics.
“But we’re not disappointed going home with a silver medal at all!”
As for the usually effervescent Paul: “I’m still a bit tired out to be thinking of emotions. I’m very happy!”
Also supporting the O’Donovan brothers were Sinead Lynch (née Jennings) and Claire Lambe, who in the race immediately beforehand finished sixth in the women’s Lightweight Double Sculls Final.
Gold in this went to the Netherlands in 7:04.73 ahead of Canada (7:05.88) and China (7:06.49).
The Irish pair were sixth throughout, and for the 2000 metres clocked 7:13.09, six-and-a-half seconds down on bronze.
Reacting to the O’Donovan brothers’ glory, Lambe said: “They’re unbelievable lads. They’re brilliant,” while Lynch added: “We would have expected that going out. When it’s a fight, they can fight, and they certainly did. Brilliant!”
In terms of their own race, Lynch said: “We did our best. We can have absolutely no regrets there.
“We had a very good row, perhaps not the best of starts, but I think if we hadn’t been side-by-side with five of the best crews in the world, we might have felt that was a brilliant start.
“We got into a really good rhythm and we tried really hard, and even sprinted at the end, and we did that right.
“We just wanted to do everyone proud at home.”
Two Irish finalists in the rowing – so far – with one set of medals gained is definitely doing much more than that.