A win-win situation: sportsmanship has restored my faith in Olympics

TWO weeks ago, in this column, I wrote about how a suspension of disbelief was required to make the most of watching the Olympic Games.

Experience had made me a doubter, of the records achieved, of the medals won, of the fairness of the competition, because previous Olympians had cheated by using performance-enhancing drugs.

My memories of earlier Olympics had been tainted in 1988 by the unmasking as drug cheats of most of the athletes in that year’s 100-metre final. Ben Johnson won it sensationally and was stripped of his title within days.

Every unexpected swimming sensation brings back memories of how we cheered Michelle Smith as she won three golds and one bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games; of how we supported her achievement when she was accused of cheating by those she defeated; and of how we discovered, to our horror, two years later, that she poured whiskey into a urine sample to stop it from being tested.

It was uncomfortable to write the column two weeks ago, because mentioning the cheating of a few, or voicing suspicions, can cast doubt upon those who have achieved glory without the use of pharmaceutical products.

How glad I am that I banished my legitimate doubts and embraced what I saw, without cynicism and with new-found joy.

Maybe it was because they were staged by our nearest neighbour, Britain, but has there even been an Olympic Games that the Irish have enjoyed so much? Doesn’t thinking about it, nearly a week later, bring a smile to the face?

Wasn’t it great to escape from the everyday worries, to celebrate the achievement of others, to marvel at their sacrifice and endeavour and to commiserate with those who came so close to achieving their dreams but who just, and I use the word advisedly, failed? What Irish person will not remember the achievements of boxer Katie Taylor with great pride, was not humbled by her great humility, not awed by her speed and skill, and her strength, both physically and mentally, in the ring as she vanquished her opponents? Who was not touched by the disappointment and pride of our other boxing medallists? John Joe Nevin thrilled everyone by winning silver — there was no disgrace in being out-boxed in the final — but he worried that he had left people down. He need not hold such worries.

The joker Paddy Barnes was unlucky not to win his semi-final — drawing the bout and losing on the count-back — and so won bronze, but it was a mammoth effort, given that his Chinese opponent had thumped him 15-0 four years previously, in Bejing. All sports fans will prize him for that. Michael Conlan was disappointed to win ‘only’ bronze, but in the years to come he will surely appreciate it as much as we did.

Who does not have had great sympathy for the Irish who finished fourth? The television interview Annalise Murphy gave after she finished fourth in sailing, having won the first four of her ten races, was heart-breaking. Anything other than being so close seemed better to her at the time. But she will come back stronger — and will realise that fourth is a massive achievement.

And what of Rob Heffernan’s mighty effort in the 50km walk last Saturday? To beat his personal best by seven minutes, to finish in a time that would have won gold in every walk up to the 2004 Games, and silver in the 2008 event, and to still finish fourth, seemed cruel beyond belief. And yet it was a heroic performance.

What else will we Irish remember? Well, what about the cheer, for the Irish team as it entered the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony, much of which has to be accounted for by the warmth shown to us by the British?

Or the way the Irish fans colonised the Excel Arena for Taylor’s fights, in particular, but also cheered British boxers, such as Nicola Adams, as if they were our own (as long as they weren’t fighting against the Irish)? And, indeed, the wonderfully entertaining, engaging and eccentric opening ceremony itself, which was created by a man of Irish heritage, the acclaimed film director Danny Boyle, who paid tribute to his mother’s home town of Ballinasloe, in Galway, by slipping in a few seconds of a famous international rugby try scored by that town’s Noel Mannion.

It wasn’t just what we took from the games for ourselves, though.

Our extensive use of British media meant that many of us watched the Games through the excellent services of the BBC (and that is no offence to RTÉ, which did its own fine job). And that meant that many of us shared their joy at their many successes, some of which were spectacular.

Mo Farah, in particular, was a joy to watch, the son of a Somalian immigrant, cheered to the rafters by the British, rightly, as one of their own, as he completed an inspired track double of the 10,000 metres and 5,000 metres on successive Saturday evenings.

So, too, was Jessica Ennis, the petite woman who won the heptathlon, inspired by the incredible crowd in the stadium, starting her conquest with an adrenaline-pumped hurdles, finishing with an 800-metres victory of incredible vigour that wasn’t even required for overall success.

And in cycling the Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins, cut a stylish figure, with his ‘mod’ sideburns, as he sat on a throne outside Hampton Court Palace, having won the cycling time-trial in expected, but still brilliant, fashion.

There were so many other stand-out moments. The swimmer Michael Phelps started slowly enough and looked as if he was not going to be good enough to fulfil his ambition of becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time. He stuck at it, and how, winning four gold and two bronze medals, to bring his overall tally to 22. What a phenomenon.

As is Kenyan runner David Rudisha, whose performance in running from the front in the 800-metres final, and in setting a new world record, as well as winning Olympic gold, was almost unbelievable, except that it had been predicted.

And then there was Usain Bolt, who was doubted by many, because he had been beaten in the Jamaican trials, but who astounded again as he powered his enormous frame through the 100 and 200 metres to gold, and in the relay, too, and who then lit up the stadium with his enormous charisma, and who brought last Saturday evening to a wonderful close.

Were there things I didn’t like, things that could not be put out of mind? There were some medal winners you had to doubt. Justin Gatlin’s appearance, and bronze-medal win, in the 100 metres provided some tarnish: twice he has been banned for drugs and he has come back to run faster than he did when he was caught. The Turkish one-two in the women’s 1,500 metres was unsettling, as the winner, Asli Cakir, had previously served a drugs ban and the 20-year-old runner-up, Gamze Balut, has dropped her times remarkably over the last year.

So what, then, of Cian O’Connor, our other bronze medal winner, in showjumping, given that he, so controversially, was stripped of gold in 2004 after his horse failed a drugs test?

A glorious story of redemption or a tale of a cheat who shouldn’t have been left back in, like Gatlin, Cakir or the Kazakhstan cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov, who won her road race? Or should we give him the benefit of the doubt, just because he is Irish, that he has learnt his lessons and reformed?

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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