DERVAL O'ROURKE: Chase your dreams on the Olympic fast lane but don’t get stuck in traffic

The Sydney Olympics was 16 years ago. That was the last time I didn’t pack a bag and get on a plane to chase an Olympic dream as part of an Irish team.

When the Games lit up Sydney I had just finished my Leaving Certificate and I had missed qualifying for the Irish team by a couple of metres. Not a huge amount in the normal world but substantial in the world of elite sprinting. I was far enough from qualifying not to feel hard done by but close enough to become determined that four years later I would qualify for the Olympic team.

I watched every part of those Games 16 years ago. I absorbed the whole spectacle from my student accommodation at UCD. I screamed when Sonia O’Sullivan was battling down the home straight with Gabriella Szabo and won her Olympic medal. I was probably the only fresher staying up late at night to drink tea and watch the Olympics!

During the Rio Olympics, I will be watching from the RTÉ studio with Sonia O’Sullivan sitting beside me. We will be analysing all the action from Rio and throwing in our tuppence worth from the years of experience we’ve built up.

In the past few days, people have been asking me loads of questions about the Olympics. The conversations focus heavily on the various headline-grabbing news stories. People want to know my thoughts on the zika virus, drug scandals, on potential terrorist attacks and on pollution in the waters of Brazil.

Chase your dreams on the Olympic fast lane but don’t get stuck in traffic

But in this column I’ll talk about the things that matter to an athlete once they are in the Olympic village and preparing to compete. In my experience, their concerns are very different from those of the world outside of the village.

I paid little attention to the media stories that dominated the lead-in to the Games I competed in. Before the Athens Olympics, the big story was that the venues were never going to be ready in time. In Beijing, there was constant talk of smog and in London it was the threat of a terror attack. None of the stories registered with me because the issues were so far outside my control.

Had I worried about these things, it wasn’t going to help me perform so I simply stopped thinking about them and focused on the elements that could affect my performance.

In the past two weeks, I’ve spoken to two different Team Ireland members, from different sports. Both have ambitions to bring home a medal from Rio. The conversations quickly turned to the practicalities of competing in Rio. There was no talk of zika or performance enhancing drugs, the discussion was far more mundane. The main chat was about the logistics of getting from the Olympic Village to the competition area.

I laughed a little to myself because I remember so well that the bus schedule is a massive part of competing at the Olympics. No matter how big a star you are, you still need to get yourself on a bus and to your race venue.

There are buses that leave from the village to whisk the athletes to their competition venue. They travel in designated Olympic lanes that are reserved for competitors and VIPs, marked out all over the city by the Olympic rings. I remember seeing the Olympic bus lanes in 2004 in Athens and thinking they were super cool but by the time I came to London 2012 I didn’t take much notice!

There is a massive traffic issue in Rio and athletes will be conscious of factoring this into their race-day planning. As you can imagine, most athletes battle to contain their nerves on the morning of their Olympic competition — getting stuck on a bus that is caught in a traffic jam is the last place you want to be!

At the London Olympic Games, I did practice bus trips in the days leading up to my races to gauge the length of the journey and factor this into the race day plan.

Chase your dreams on the Olympic fast lane but don’t get stuck in traffic

A long overdue Rio metro system, even if it is only semi-finished, should ease a little of the traffic congestion. This combined with the schools being closed during the Games will hopefully ease the tensions of athletes worrying about traffic!

Another area of potential stress for Olympic athletes is social media. I didn’t have an account on Twitter during the London Games so it wasn’t something I needed to be concerned about. But the digital media landscape has changed and most athletes in Rio will have a social media presence.

Safely navigating Olympic Rule 40 brings an added dimension for athletes.

Theoretically, Rule 40 is designed to stop commercialisation of the Games but it seems rather antiquated considering what a colossal money-making machine the Games are. Essentially, Rule 40 is a way for the International Olympic Committee to prevent non-Olympic sponsors ‘hijacking’ the Olympic brand and logos.

Companies pay big bucks to be associated with the games and they want to get their value and the IOC want to protect this revenue stream.

Athletes have a blackout period from July 27 to August 24 during which they are barred from referencing non-Olympic sponsors. A company that may have sponsored an athlete for three years leading up to the Olympics isn’t even allowed to tweet them good luck during this period. Nor can they refer to the Games in any way. There is a list of words that are prohibited including “performance”, “challenge” and even “summer”, along with obvious Olympic-specific terms such as “Olympian”, “Games” and “medal”.

An athlete can face a reprimand if they are seen to be in violation of Rule 40 and can even be punished if one of their sponsors is seen to violate the rule.

While it is tempting for athletes to thank loyal sponsors, the potential stress that it brings makes it not worthwhile. It’s a shame, because most Olympic athletes struggle to earn a very basic living pursuing their sport so to be curtailed during the most visible period in their career is quite harsh.

Of course, the Olympics isn’t all stress about tweets and bus routes, there are attractive perks associated with being an Olympian, apart from getting to compete for your country.

This is the free stuff. Olympic athletes get tons of kit. They get kit to wear in the opening and closing ceremonies, they receive competition kit and they get casual kit. There are a lot of bags of kit for each athlete to use and bring home.

Then there is the Olympic-themed duvet that is placed on every bed in the Olympic Village that each athlete is allowed to take home. A nice souvenir, particularly if you’ve realised your sweetest dreams.

But primarily, athletes will just be so glad the day they’ve strived for through their careers has finally arrived. It’s been dogged by controversy but the 2016 Games has finally arrived.

Three to watch

Athletes arrive at the Games with wildly different expectations and stories. Whether they are locks for gold or fulfilling a lifelong goal they are all impressive people. Here are my top three to watch.

Simone Biles — US gymnast

Those into their gymnastics will be aware of her amazing ability. She goes into the Games as the overwhelming favourite, with a win streak that is over three years long. Biles is possibly the greatest gymnast ever and taking the Olympic all-round title will solidify this status. Her ability to perform incredibly difficult moves with what looks like very little effort is astonishing.

Kim Collins — St Kitts and Nevis 100-metre sprinter

At 40, Collins will be the oldest Olympic sprinter to compete. I was in the stadium in Paris in 2003 when he was crowned world 100-metre champion. It’s astonishing he is still competing and mixing it with the best. Collins isn’t just competing for the sake of it, he is in great shape. He ran a personal best 9.93 in May and could make the 100m final.

Sinead Jennings — Irish lightweight doubles rower

Jennings is a doctor and mother of three. Those stats are impressive on their own. Add in the fact she competes in the women’s lightweight doubles with Claire Lambe in Rio and it’s impressive. Jennings comes to this Olympics via a roundabout route. She had attempts at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 in rowing. For London 2012, Jennings threw the dice at qualifying in track cycling. Having just missed out before, Jennings will relish her chance to compete in Rio. She has a very talented partner in Clare Lambe.

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