Even with the Olympic Games’ notorious reputation for shattering expectations, nobody saw this coming. On the world’s biggest sporting stage, where those with more talent and grit than the rest of us gather every four years to push themselves beyond normal human limits, no one, but no one, caught sight of what was coming for Team Ireland.
While Team GB was having its best away Games ever, our own Olympians struggled to make headlines, pitted against the flow of homegrown scandal that emanated daily from Rio. And so while these Games have finally consigned Saipan to history, no Irish citizen will ever hark back to Rio 2016 without the distressing mental image of Pat Hickey in a bathrobe.
The thing with Hickey is he looks like your dad, anyone’s dad, and no one wants to see their old man’s arrest put up on YouTube, especially when he’s looking pretty dishevelled and, ostensibly, under the weather.
Except in Hickey’s case, the distress has a more global edge. Because as president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) and of the European Olympic Committees and a member of the powerful executive board of the International Olympic Council, the last thing you expect or want to see is the man representing our Olympic interests charged with facilitating ticket touting, forming a cartel, and illicit marketing.
And so nobody, not even the White Witch of Cobh, could have predicted the drama that unfolded in the Irish Olympic camp, beginning ahead of the Games themselves, which kicked off on August 5.
In the countdown to the Games, the general consensus was our boxers represented our best medal hopes. Sure hadn’t they acquitted themselves fantastically well in London, bagging four medals, including the unassailable Katie Taylor winning our first gold in 16 years and Paddy Barnes successfully defending a bronze medal, only the second Irish athlete in eight decades to win medals at two consecutive Olympics.
There was the excitement in London of Cian O’Connor onboard Blue Loyd making history as the first man/horse duo to win an Olympic medal for Ireland. Irish racewalker Rob Heffernan finished fourth on the day, but engaged us all along every complicated step of the way, and we rejoiced when earlier this year he was upgraded to Olympic bronze after the London 2012 winner, Sergey Kirdyaplin, failed a doping test and a ban was applied retrospectively.
Finally in 2012, Annalise Murphy’s exploits on the water and her tantalisingly close-to-medal finish in the London Olympics awoke in us all a latent expertise in laser radial sailing, redeployed from our armchairs for the Rio Olympics.
And so, with warm fuzzy memories of London, where the Games were never closer to home, we all looked forward to Rio and the ultimate showcase of human endeavour , embodied by the Olympic creed which tells us what we learned at our mother’s knee: That the most important thing is not to win, but to take part, and the Olympic oath, where we swear to “take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams”.
Tragically, just as we immersed ourselves in this true Olympic spirit, becoming night owls in the process and subscribing to a mad number of cable channels, the news broke right here in the
newsroom on August 4 of a boxer, an IRISH boxer, at the centre of doping allegations.
Dumbfounded, the nation watched as media outlets nationally and internationally picked up the story, so that instead of sharing in that sprinkling of Olympic feelgood feeling on day one of the biggest sporting extravaganza on the planet, we felt a bit like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar — a smidgeon of guilt, a big dollop of embarrassment, and more than a little bit ashamed.
Against this fairly inauspicious start, the pressure was on our athletes to lift the national mood. In fairness, we all know doping is part and parcel of international sport, but who among us expected the allegation to land on our own doorstep?
Russia had dominated all talk of doping in the run-up to the Olympics so the last thing any of us expected was to see the finger pointed at an Irish boxer. Yet right on the cusp of our athletes’ biggest day in the sun, where, ostensibly, everyone competes fairly and honestly to the best of their natural ability, Ireland — a minor Olympic player — found itself making international headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The upshot was that on August 5, before a single Games’ firework had crackled, hissed, or whizzed, all the talk was of an alleged drug cheat. The nation woke to newspaper reports such as our own headline ‘Irish Olympics scandal: No innocent mistake’ and “Our Olympic dream is tainted after boxer fails drug test’ and ‘Michael O’Reilly: Fighting to fight on at Rio.”
To our grave disappointment then, the first Irish story to emerge from the Olympics was that of 23-year-old Portlaoise man Michael O’Reilly. Unsurprisingly, it dominated the airwaves and front pages for the first few days of the Games. This is how the news cycle works. Good news rarely makes headlines, but the appetite for scandal is rapacious.
And at the end of the day, we were all more than a little curious to know what had gone awry with O’Reilly. We tuned into current affairs shows, hungry for the latest update, and we scanned the newspapers daily. And while we hoped that, ultimately, the doping allegations would give way to miraculous tales of human attainment, we had no inkling that regardless of what Irish Olympians achieved, it would all, in the heel of the hunt, be overshadowed by the arrest of the head of our Olympic delegation and the news that he was banged up in Rio’s sprawling Bangu prison complex amid calls to the Government to defend Ireland’s reputation.
This story that has polluted our Olympic endeavours kicked off on the Games’ opening day with the arrest in Rio of Irishman Kevin James Mallon, Dublin finance director of hospitality group THG, at a hotel near the main Olympic venue. Police said he had been picked up on suspicion of illegally selling tickets for the Games at grossly inflated prices.
Mallon’s arrest sparked worldwide interest, because the tickets in his possession were OCI-designated — this is what gave the story legs. It raised questions as to whether one of the leading national Olympic committees in the world (self-professed) had somehow got caught up an activity deemed illegal in Brazil, punishable by a jail term.
As the story spiralled, Sport Minister Shane Ross, hell-bent on saving the day, pulled on his best linen jacket, and, amid considerable drama, headed for Rio for a showdown with Hickey. This proved fruitless: Hickey has many years’ experience in batting off troublesome journalists and ministers.
Perhaps the most disheartening part of this whole sad, sorry saga is how much it has distracted from the true business of the Olympics. The Games were four days old before we sat up in our armchairs and temporarily put O’Reilly out of our heads because two rowers from Lisheen, outside Skibbereen, had kicked ass in their heat of the men’s lightweight double sculls.
Their first-place finish, setting a blistering pace in a burst towards the finish, brought us back to why the Olympics are such darn good viewing. Overnight, the mood of the nation changed to not quite elation, but at least optimism. Until we opened the newspapers the following day to read O’Reilly was out after admitting to taking a supplement.
In hindsight, it was just the beginning of what was to be a nightmare Olympics for Irish boxing.
Our performance on the water saved us from the depths of depression as each of our boxers was picked off. By August 12, Joe Ward, Paddy Barnes, and David Oliver Joyce had all suffered defeats. Stephen Donnelly progressed to the welterweight quarter-finals but subsequently lost on a split decision. Dismayed boxers stared at us daily from the front pages. And so the pressure on Gary, 23, and Paul, 22, O’Donovan to keep the Irish flag flying in the rowing semi-finals was, well, intense.
Not a bother, however. The lads don’t do pressure. To use a quote of their own, they pulled like dogs and we qualified for our first Olympic final.
On August 12, they gifted us our first Olympic medal and we all went mental. They also gifted us a slew of phrases that may yet go down in legend as the most memorable of the Rio Games. Our female lightweight double sculls team, Claire Lambe and Sinéad Lynch, were not as fortunate. Having made it through to the final and despite a heroic performance, they failed to make the podium.
We were riding high on the O’Donovans’ piece of silver when confronted with the first truly devastating image of the Irish Olympic experience. Katie Taylor, the reigning women’s lightweight Irish, European, and, up to then, Olympic champion, was defeated in her opening round by Finnish boxer Mira Potkonen.
A tortured Katie struggled through what was surely her most difficult post-match TV interview. Instead of the invincible warrior we’d grown accustomed to, we had a heartbroken, vulnerable young woman at a loss to explain how girls, not her equal, somehow had the measure of her in the ring.
Scott Evan’s badminton exploits — bare-chested celebrations included — gave us a boost and we all tuned in after he became the first Irishman to reach an Olympic badminton quarter-final. Alas, he was done down by a Dane.
And so front page space on August 14 was dominated by a grief-stricken Katie, a disappointed Scott, and a ticket scandal threatening to overshadow everything.
Even Annalise Murphy’s phenomenal performance on August 15, winning a second silver for Team Ireland, could not hold the bad news at bay. TV cameras alternated between the gentrified images of fans at the National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire and the raw, ferocious outburst of boxer Michael Conlan after what many believed was an unjustified defeat at the gloves of Russian Vladimir Nikitin.
In a furious post-match interview, the middleweight tore strips off amateur boxing’s powers-that-be, calling them “cheating bastards”. Later that day, he took a swipe at Russian President Vladimir Putin, tweeting “Hey Vlad @PutinDF_Eng How much did they charge you bro?”
His outbursts drew the ire of both the Amateur International Boxing Association and the Russian Olympic delegation and, in the process, spawned acres of news coverage.
Since then, we’ve seen Tipperary showjumper Greg Broderick bow out aboard Going Global and we’ve watched, breathless, as Waterford man Thomas Barr came within a hair’s breadth of taking a bronze in the men’s 400m hurdles. Barr was the first Irish finalist in the 400m hurdles since Bob Tisdall won gold in 1932. And we witnessed an Irish Olympian make it for the first time to the 3m springboard diving final, surpassing all expectations, as Oliver Dingley finished eighth.
Yesterday, Corkman Rob Heffernan put in a fine performance in the gruelling 50km racewalk, finishing in a very respectable sixth place. Leonie Maguire and Stephanie Meadow continue our Olympic endeavours today in the women’s golf and Aileen Reid represents us in the women’s individual triathlon.
Of course there are other Irish Olympians, not necessarily household names or headline makers, who deserve no less respect for making it to Rio.
The pity is, that as the closing ceremony beckons, all of the focus is on our top Olympic official who now finds himself in a maximum security prison.