It is four years since Kieran Behan expressed the hope that his historic appearance at the Olympic Games in his hometown of London would act as a springboard for the sport of gymnastics in Ireland. Signs are that it has certainly helped.
Behan was the first Irish gymnast to qualify for a Games, and only the second to compete, when he appeared in 2012.
He returns to the Olympic arena today having been joined in Rio de Janeiro by Ellis O’Reilly, Ireland’s first ever Olympic female participant in the sport.
“It just shows that if you put the numbers and the hard work in,” Behan says.
The target for Tokyo in four years’ time is to repeat that feat, one male and one female competitor, but that isn’t to say that Gymnastics Ireland is looking to tread water.
The real focus this next four years is for an upsurge in fortunes below the Olympic radar.
It’s already been a good year in that sense.
It’s less than three months since Bangor teenager Rhys McClenaghan claimed an historic silver medal at the European Junior Championships in Bern when he finished a whisker behind the Russian champion.
It was the first time an Irish gymnast made the podium at such a prestigious event.
McClenaghan’s eyes are on Tokyo and he has said before that Behan’s place on the Olympic platform has helped youngsters such as himself understand that their goal is that bit more plausible. Other buds are blooming around the country, too.
Tony Duchars and Meg Ryan from Douglas in Cork, and Ewan McAteer from Lisburn, were others to impress with standout performances in Switzerland and there is a group of young female gymnasts in Renmore, Galway as good as any in their age or class in Europe.
The stated aim going forward is to deliver consistent finalists and podium places at European, World and Olympic levels and the expected completion of the National Indoor Arena in Dublin this December has been described as the final piece in the sport’s puzzle.
The path will be smoother for those to come and Behan has helped to lay it.
His personal story, one containing remarkable physical and mental powers of recovery from almost unimaginable injury and fitness problems, struck a real chord with the country in 2012 but other obstacles were still being overcome in this latest Olympic cycle.
Funding remains the major issue.
Gymnastics Ireland and Sport Ireland contribute financially but the sport is not yet part of the carding scheme for elite athletes.
The hope is that will change post-Rio but Behan would only be entitled to something in the region of EUR12,000 per year anyway.
“It is a constant struggle,” he admits. “I get support from Gymnastics Ireland, which is a few hundred euros a month, but when you have your training costs, rent, food and I’m balancing a job as well as training full-time…
“I coach gymnastics and I help my dad who is a builder so I am doing some work as a labourer as well. You’ve got to get the results to hopefully get some reward as well and I feel that I’ve done this without much help so let’s have the help and see what can happen.”
He has other priorities for now.
Qualifying for London was his achievement last time. Now it’s all about moving up the ladder as he tackles the pommel, floor, vault, rings, parallel bars and high bar. There will be no acclimatisation required, no emotional hit when he steps out and spots his parents in the crowd.
“Christ, yeah, you did go through all that there and then. Now it means that, ahead of Rio, I am prepared for that. You can’t buy experience and you can’t buy a bigger experience than competing at an Olympic Games.”
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