'A mixed bag of emotions' as rocky road to Tokyo extended until 2021

The pinned tweet at the head of Natalya Coyle’s Twitter feed dates back to August of last year.

Natalya Coyle. Picture Inpho / Billy Stickland
Natalya Coyle. Picture Inpho / Billy Stickland

“I’ve just QUALIFIED FOR THE TOKYO OLYMPICS!!” wrote the modern pentathlete who had claimed a top-10 finish at the Rio Games back in 2016. The capital letters and extra exclamation mark were her’s. So too the Irish and Japanese flags and accompanying fire symbols.

Underneath a second paragraph that emphasised just how thrilled she was at that point in her life was a picture of the Meath woman in a green singlet and with a smile as wide as the large Tricolour she was raising in triumph behind her back.

Yesterday, that post was followed by another shortly after 5pm when she, like thousands of other athletes around the world, reacted to the news from earlier in the day that the Tokyo Games would be pushed back to an unspecified point in 2021.

There was a sadness expressed for the years spent preparing for her second shot at an Olympic appearance but relief for the fact that she no longer had to keep training for now for an event that everyone knew would be delayed long before it was made official.

“I’m a mixed bag of emotions,” she wrote.

Coyle, like so many other athletes today, had no difficulty in keeping all this in perspective.

She was, for instance, one of among many to point out that the postponement meant she could now cease preparations that could put herself and others at risk.

The decision to press pause was, in effect, a potential matter of life and death.

The modern pentathlete described sport, all of it, as a “little footnote in the global battle” against the pandemic and hailed the medical professionals, supermarket employees, postmen and women and refuse collectors as the heroes of today and tomorrow.

Leona Maguire who, like Coyle, was an Olympian in Rio four years ago, thanked the efforts of everyone out there who are “putting their lives on the line” and noted that the postponement would hit not just golfers and other athletes but those networks of staff who support them.

They all know this is far bigger than just them. Patrick O’Leary, the Paralympic canoeist, admitted to shedding a tear at the news but added that he had been on an open call with 70 fourth-year chemistry students at the time it dropped and explaining how their degree assessments would work in light of all this upheaval.

Everyone knows this was the only option.

The Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI), unlike Canada and Australia, had earlier in the week held back from pulling their athletes from any Games held in 2020 but they had all but switched their focus ahead to 2021 in anticipation of the events that have since unfolded.

The body was quick to turn its attention to the needs of the athletes according to the statement released yesterday and just how necessary all support will be was evident in the reaction of the nation’s rowers who were described as “devastated” with the news.

Ireland has four boats qualified: women’s single scull, qualified by Sanita Puspure; men’s lightweight double, qualified by Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan; men’s double of Ronan Byrne and Phil Doyle and the women’s pair, qualified by Monika Dukarska and Aileen Crowley.

Sanita Puspure
Sanita Puspure

The hope was that the women’s four and women’s lightweight double would join them in the coming weeks only for their events, like so many others across the sporting spectrum and along the various qualification pathways, to be cancelled with the spread of the virus.

“We are saddened that our athletes will now not have the opportunity to represent Ireland at the Olympics this year,” said Rowing Ireland’s high-performance director Antonio Maurogiovanni.

The sacrifice that they have made and the hours that they have put into training is extraordinary.

“For them, not to have the opportunity to compete at the Olympics this year is hard to accept. With the circumstances that we can’t control, our attention now is focused on the future. We have four boats currently qualified, and our goal is still to qualify two more before the Olympics.

“We are in an excellent place for Irish Rowing and we must all keep up the hard work and focus through these difficult times.”

Elite athletes are a remarkably resilient bunch, both mentally and physically, but they are human too. There will be periods of disappointment and even disillusionment for some as they take stock of lives put on hold just as they had approached within reach of the highest stage.

Two of Maurogiovanni’s charges, Doyle and Aifric Keogh, spoke on behalf of the rest of their high-performance rowing colleagues when admitting that “it’s hard not to lose perspective when it’s a decision to meaningful to us as a group of athletes”.

They too managed to look beyond their own horizons and give thanks for the fact that Ireland has not, as it stands, suffered the losses experienced in other countries but a web of sporting questions now need untangling as a result of this unprecedented move.

Irish sprinter Leon Reid posed some of them when asking what now of those found guilty of doping and whose bans expire before the Games next year? What of the points system used for qualification. Or of funding and monies already spent on flights?

Insignificant details given the issues at play right now but still meaningful matters for those affected and hopeful of pushing through another 12 months. Whatever the minutiae, the Games will go on. At some stage. And the walker Brendan Boyce can’t wait.

“It now has the potential to be the greatest show of unity, of life and of sport the world has ever seen,” he tweeted. “Let’s crush #COVID19 #togetherapart”.

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