On Wednesday, Ireland’s Olympic team chef de mission Kevin Kilty described the mood in the Irish camp in Rio as jovial and upbeat, as athletes prepared to make final preparations for competition.
The Olympic village building that houses our competitors was festooned with Team Ireland banners and Irish flags.
“We really put a special effort to branding up the building,” he told RTÉ Sport. “From the front of the building we have the tricolour on all of our balconies and you can see it from anywhere in the village.”
One day later, and just hours before the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, everything changed when middle-weight boxer Michael O’Reilly failed a doping test. Darren O’Neill, who captained the Ireland boxing team at the London Games in 2012, reflected on the shocking news: “The reputation of the team was something that was always spoken about: Never tarnish the reputation by anything you do or say.”
But that is exactly what has happened. O’Reilly was tested before leaving for Rio by the Sport Ireland Anti-Doping Agency and returned “an adverse analytical finding”. He has not only let himself down but also his fellow boxers, the entire Team Ireland competitors and, indeed, his country.
If anything good can be taken from this episode, it is that Ireland’s system of testing for banned substances is among the best and most robust in the world.
It contrasts hugely with the situation in Russia, which had a state-sponsored doping programme in place for the London Games and for the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) which is tasked with rooting out the use of illicit substances in sport, not only failed to spot this but during the Sochi Games actually praised the Russian testing mechanism, blithely unware that Russian’s ministry of sport was running a doping factory inside the official testing site.
The extent of what was happening only emerged when whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova, an 800m runner, and her husband Vitaly, a former official in the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, helped to uncover what was going on.
Any competitor testing positive for a banned substance — whether performance-enhancing or otherwise — is excluded from competition, which makes all the more inexplicable the decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) not to impose a blanket ban on Russia for the Rio Games.
O’Reilly has let his team down, but the IOC, the world governing body, has let the whole Olympics movement down.
Although boxing is an individual sport, each competitor is also part of Team Ireland. Social and other activities take place in a group atmosphere so the fact that an Irish athlete has tested positive for a banned substance and is provisionally suspended not only from competition but also training will be a huge blow to every one of our competitors.
Let us hope that all the other Team Ireland members can, individually and collectively, rise above the trauma of what has happened and do us all proud.