TV doesn’t just add ten pounds. It distorts distance and depth. It leaves the viewer blind to all sorts of realities.
Brands Hatch was built on an undulating patch of Kent farmland. That topography still informs the famous old circuit but it wasn’’t so obvious when you were sitting on a sofa watching Nigel Mansell gun his Williams-Honda F1 car around the track back in the 1980s.
For those with an engine under them, Hailwood Hill, and the Druids hairpin bend that follows, has always been a signal to hit the brakes. For the hand cyclists who competed there in 2012 it was an exercise in torture as they strained every sinew to eat mere inches off the steep climb.
Mark Rohan had pointed out long before the Games that it was twice as hard for hand cyclists like him to crab uphill than those pedalling with their feet. To those of us looking on from the paddock, they looked like mountaineers chiselling their way glacially up an Alpine shelf.
Well, all bar one.
Rohan would reveal two days later, after he won his second Paralympic gold medal in the H1 road race, how Wolfgang Schattauer sidled up alongside him at one point to confess that he couldn’t ’’do any work’’ on the hills. And this was no mug talking: the Austrian won bronze in both races.
Memory is a fickle filter but we can still see Rohan streaking past at least one competitor on that hill in the H1 road race and he didn’t exactly disagree at the time when it was put to him that his superiority on those summits had gone a long way to his successes.
“It’s tough to get it right because you come into [the climb] so fast,” Rohan explained to us after winning gold in the time trial. “You come into it at around 65kph and within 20 seconds you’re down to 9kph. So you have to get the gears right and thankfully we did.”
If those numbers seem awfully exact from a man who had just spent 35 minutes emptying his body and soul around a baking corner of rural England then that is perfectly in keeping with someone for whom nothing was ever left to chance in chasing his sporting ambitions.
Rohan was an U21 footballer with Westmeath when he crashed his motorbike in 2001 on his way to a soccer match and suffered broken bones in his back, chest, legs and feet. He also tore his aorta in an accident which would leave him paralysed from the chest down and redirect his sporting compass.
He got back on the bike via a spell playing with, and captaining, the Irish wheelchair basketball team and arrived in the UK for those 2012 Games just five years after buying his first bike and having claimed two world titles in Denmark the year before.
His nickname around Team Ireland was ’’Hardship’’ because of his love for the routine and the grit needed to succeed but that raw willpower was matched by an attention to detail that was apparent both in the years and the days preceding his performances.
He had trained at Brands Hatch, studied the contours and the idiosyncrasies of the track in the months leading up to those Games, and his bike was subject to the same focus. He would think nothing of scouring the internet for days to find a part that would shave ounces from its weight.
Liam Harbison, the then CEO of Paraympics Ireland and the team’s chef de mission that year, remembers how the Ballinahown man spent two hours checking the bike on the morning after his arrival at the Paralympic Village even though they had two mechanics to do all that.
That forensic mindset was still working hours after he claimed that first gold in 2012.
“I had the great pleasure of Mark’s company for a cuppa at about 1am as he tried to come down from his career high,” said Harbison this week. “He explained every move in the race, how he felt, how he got up that steep hill time and again and how it felt to finish the race with hundreds of Irish people shouting him home down the strait.”
Looking back now, there is a suspicion that his performances, just 36 hours apart and with the second of them demanding the completion of six circuits across 48km on another sun-drenched afternoon, lack their rightful place in the pantheon of great Irish victories.
Maybe we just had it too good at the time.
Ireland had already blazed a trail across the Paralympics landscape in London. Medals were being won daily and would continue to be across a fortnight that was captured by RTE, Setanta and Channel 4 and covered on the ground by every Irish broadsheet newspaper.
The team would return home with 16 medals, half of them gold.
Maybe it was the fact that the rest of the world kept turning. Pat Gilroy stepped down as Dublin manager the day Rohan won his first gold, Kilkenny and Galway were days away from an All-Ireland hurling final and the Republic of Ireland were playing a World Cup qualifier in Kazakhstan.
Then again, maybe none of that matters anyway. Maybe our insistence on seeking a wider context for sporting efforts of vastly different types is a fool’’s errand. Maybe remembering those performances for what they were – astonishing athletic and tactical achievements – is enough.
“When you see the flag go up, I don’’t know, you just think how proud you are to be Irish,” said Rohan after securing the second gold medal. “To see that flag on top of the rest of them, you know, is a real special moment. It doesn’t happen that often.”