Sanita Puspure powers to opening victory at Tokyo Olympics

Puspure justified her favouritism but there was crushing disappointment for Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle who failed to make it through their heat of the men’s double.
Sanita Puspure powers to opening victory at Tokyo Olympics

Ireland’s Sanita Puspure. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

It took just over an hour for the full spectrum of Olympic emotions to be placed on display by Team Ireland’s first contributors to these Tokyo Games.

Sanita Puspure was the first of Ireland’s 116 athletes in action in the Japanese capital and the double world champion lived up to her rank and billing as a huge medal contender with a cruising win in her single sculls heat at the Sea Forest Waterway.

The 39-year old left the rest of the contenders in Heat 2 for dust in the early morning sun, finishing over eight seconds ahead of the next best finisher, Kenia Lechuga of Mexico. Puspure’s next assignment is a quarter-final on Monday.

“It was okay,” she said afterwards. “It was good to get the first race done and dusted. The start could have been better but we will work on it.” Puspure did not record the fastest time from the six heats with her 7:46.68. Austria’s Magdalena Labnig went almost nine seconds faster while New Zealand’s Emma Twigg recorded the day’s best with 7:35.22.

Twigg will be a serious contender for the gold medal which Puspure is chasing but it is worth pointing out that the conditions changed regularly on the course with Puspure contending with a crosswind while the Kiwi had a tailwind at her back.

Much is expected of Puspure here. Ireland has never claimed an Olympic rowing gold and her CV and form are both in her favour. She is absorbing the good wishes and vibes from home but not allowing herself to get caught up in the giddiness.

"Well that's what I said before, you don't think too far ahead. You focus on one race at a time and get through the rounds safely. You just think about the next race that you have and not the race that you might be doing in a week's time. So that's it.” 

If she set the perfect tone for this highly-rated rowing team – and the rest of the Irish contingent – then the failure of Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle to make it through their heat of the men’s double was the polar opposite.

Another of the highly-rated Irish boats on show here, Byrne and Doyle were silver medallists at the World Championships in Linz and had come into good form ahead of this event, but they started slowly and never picked up the pace here.

Three of the four boats were to progress through to the semi-final. This was well within their capabilities, or should have been, but they finished a puzzling 3.18 seconds behind the winning Polish crew and 2.35 seconds adrift of New Zealand in third.

Neither made it to the mixed zone to share their views on what had gone wrong. They now face into a demanding repechage route just to make it back to the semi-final stage but this opening effort does not bode well.

Ireland’s involvement hits pause again for the rest of the day but 24 athletes plus the women’s hockey team will take the stage tomorrow across nine different sports with Dublin’s Jack Woolley hoping to contend for a medal in the 58k taekwondo division.

Shane Ryan was due to get his Olympics underway in the 100m men’s backstroke at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Sunday but the Pennsylvania-born swimmer has had to pull out of what is his best event due to an injury.

A Team Ireland statement put it that Ryan has withdrawn due to a “persistent shoulder pain that he has been experiencing, which is specific to this particular stroke”. 

He will still compete in the 100m butterfly and the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay but any injury remains a source of concern for any athlete still hoping to compete on such an elite stage.

Terrible timing for a man who has medalled at World and European level.

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