BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Among the scandals dogging Rio, Irish hockey is already an uplifting success

Ireland hockey coach Craig Fulton at Dublin Airport on Tuesday as the team heads for Rio. Picture: Brendan Moran

Drugs, bugs, refuseniks, and a troubled host city: it really hasn’t been the smoothest of rides so far for Rio 2016, writes Brendan O’Brien

Pretty much every major sporting tournament serves up its first course on the back of an extra-large portion of controversy but the 2016 Olympic Games has already delivered an all-you-can-eat buffet of bad news as we await the opening ceremony two weeks from today.

Rio de Janeiro’s ills, whether financial, political, criminal, or social, have been flagged for years. The drip-fed loss to the Games of various millionaire golfers and tennis stars has heightened exposure levels to the zika story. And then there is the Russian doping scandal making a late run for a place on the podium of opprobrium.

Is it any wonder then if the general appetite for the Games is less than keen?

It is easy, and necessary, to criticise all of that. And to voice concern about the enormous piles of cash swishing around the five-ringed corporate circus, to fume over the lamentable, underhand dealings done by far too many officials in far too many sporting organisations and to bemoan the bloated mess that is the Olympics and the IOC itself.

But good news stories still proliferate.

Most of us will throw an eye over the Games at some point. Viewership here will naturally peak when one of the boxers or some other medal hope shows signs of claiming dibs on a shiny piece of metal but Rio will offer a very different experience for the Irish public what with the presence of our men’s hockey team.

It is 68 years since Ireland was represented in a team event at an Olympic Games but the sight of Craig Fulton’s green machine competing in Brazil will, if anything, rekindle memories of all those times we as a nation have bought into the exploits of our footballers, rugby players, and cricketers at major international events.

Support for individual athletes — successful individual athletes — has never been slow to build at previous major events but there is something unique and emblematic about a team in green competing on such a global stage and Fulton, Ireland’s South African head coach, is mindful of the momentum that can come from home shores.

A two-time Olympian with his native country in 1996 and 2004, Fulton is also a keen cricket fan and he accepts entirely the potential comparisons between his side and the Ireland cricket teams that captured the imagination of a previously indifferent nation with their heroics at World Cups in the Caribbean, India, and Australia.

“I love my cricket. When you qualify for World Cup or a T20, and you do take the chance and do something big, it is ten times bigger. It is the story of the tournament, in a sense, you know? There is massive momentum that can be built and in any tournament, especially one involving teams. That momentum is everything and it’s not like you have to be playing your best hockey in the first game.”

Ireland will view the first of their five Group B games, against India on August 6, as a must-win. Three victories would secure a semi-final, two a quarter-final berth.

Whatever the results, Ireland’s is a hockey team that will be easy to root for.

Money is so tight that players who are effectively semi-professional at best must pay an annual stipend just to compete. Fundraising is a constant fact of life and confirmation of their place in Rio necessitated a drive to close a financial gap of over €225,000, which has, among other things, enabled the squad to train 24/7 for the run-up to the Games.

All five of their Group B opponents are full-time and have been for years but the Irish hockey team’s ability to scrape enough resources together, though unfortunate, stands as a far better tribute to old Olympic values than many of the well-paid and pampered stars who will share the Olympic village with them in the coming weeks.

“In 2015, we played our most hockey together,” said Fulton.

“We had 40-odd games and we had our most successful year. There’s the link (with the fundraising). It is no coincidence. We needed that time together.

“I hope people turn their TVs on and support us and see that these guys wear their hearts on their sleeves and are trying to do everyone proud.”

They deserve that much at least.

  • Email: Twitter: @Rackob

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