If there’s one thing we know about our Olympic hopefuls, it’s that we don’t know all that much.
With a few exceptions, they exist in shadows, emerging into the spotlight for one fortnight every four years, before slinking back to anonymity the moment that flame is extinguished.
It’s a pity, because their stories have the ability to draw us in and stir our cynical old souls. In an age where the Olympic movement has been polluted by professionalism and diseased by doping, we need a reminder that the Corinthian spirit can still be found, once we’re willing to look.
Tomorrow night, RTÉ airs its first episode of Road to Rio, a six-part documentary following 12 Olympic hopefuls, from the familiar faces of Michael Conlan and Rob Heffernan to lesser known names, such as taekwondo’s Jack Woolley or swimmer Fiona Doyle.
The key word is “hopefuls”, because, if we learn one thing, it’s that for every Conlan and Heffernan, there are hundreds more we never hear about.
“Now, I’m a different fighter,” says Conlan in the first episode, motioning to his 2012 Olympic bronze medal. “Come Rio, this will definitely be changing to gold.”
Most will know a little about Conlan, but this series offers a deeper look at life beyond the ring: How he spends half the week sleeping in a five-bed room in Dublin alongside his training partners, how his agility between the ropes spawned from his first boxing ring in Belfast being undersized, or how beyond the medals and adulation, he wants to earn enough money to ensure his baby girl Luisne has a secure future.
We witness Rob Heffernan at his highest and lowest: Celebrating his world gold in Moscow, then vomiting, distraught, on a street in Zurich.
“Irish people can do it as well,” he tells us. “We’re not just journeymen.”
Then, there is the story of Fiona Doyle, the Limerick swimmer who plies her trade 4,000 miles from home at the University of Calgary, with all the homesick heartbreak that entails.
However, if one moment captures the Olympic journey, it is in tomorrow night’s episode, when an athlete’s road to Rio reaches an abrupt end. There are tears, despondency and, inevitably, a resolve to rise again. For all the wrongs of the flawed five-ringed circus, it’s a necessary reminder that there’s still a whole lot right.
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