After the highs come the crippling lows: When the Olympic dream becomes a nightmare

Tokyo is playing host to 11,019 athletes over the course of these two weeks and only 1,017 medals have been minted. Do the math.
After the highs come the crippling lows: When the Olympic dream becomes a nightmare

Jack Woolley is distraught after he was eliminated in taekwondo, describing his performance as poor. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

How many times have we heard an athlete describe the Olympics as a dream? What of the reality? The majority who make it that far will never come close to a podium or know what it is to stand there on the highest step and listen to your national anthem as the flag is run up a pole.

There are elite and there are elite. Tokyo is playing host to 11,019 athletes over two weeks and only 1,017 medals have been minted, all made from recycled products including old mobile phones. Do the math.

Everyone’s experience will vary. There will be silver medallists despondent at failing to finish one step higher on their particular ladder, and athletes finishing last in their heats and for whom that is a lifetime achievement in itself.

It’s a dichotomy that was obvious in the narrower confines of Team Ireland’s Tokyo Games on Saturday afternoon when, in the space of less than an hour, Jack Woolley’s hopes of a medal in taekwondo shuddered to an early and unexpected end and the ambitions of our three road cyclists came up short.

Woolley was desolate, the pain and bewilderment etched on his face as he spoke to reporters about his opening round loss to the Argentinian Lucas Guzman. It was a brutally raw moment for Wooley, for those asking the questions, and for anyone tuning in from home.

“I walked in today and something just didn’t click, it just wasn’t my day,” said the 22-year old. “It’s sport, isn’t it? No one expected me to lose that, nobody anticipated my performance to be as poor as it was. Coming from a small country, for some people just qualifying for an Olympics is good enough. Not for me.”

Woolley missed out on a place at the 2016 Games by a whisker. He digested that and steeled himself to another four-year diet of training and travelling and striving that became five. He spoke of sitting on the couch at home in Tallaght come Monday and taking in the rest of the Olympics with his gold medal draped around his neck.

His dream was contorted into a nightmare in mere minutes. Moments, even, Guzman’s last strike on the stroke of the bell turning a narrow lead into the most agonising of defeats. Across town, in western Tokyo, it was taking hours — over six to be exact — for things to turn against Dan Martin, Nicholas Roche and Eddie Dunbar.

The three Irishmen had a plan and executed the vast majority of it. Dunbar described it as a “super” team performance, words echoed by his teammates with Roche acting as a facilitator for the others who just didn’t manage to latch onto the leaders when push came to shove.

“It didn’t pay off,” said Dunbar. “It’s one of those things, that’s one-day racing. You normally only have one bullet and when you use it that normally races over. But I thought it was a great day for us, Dan finished in the top 20, so great day, and a good ride by all of us in the green jersey.”

Disappointed, yes, but no sense of shock or bewilderment.

How do you assimilate the kind of letdown that Woolley felt on Saturday? Where do you start in picking apart the threads of five years’ work undone in a handful of minutes? Some athletes will have engaged with sports psychologists prior to the event, giving airtime to the possibility of failure. Others wouldn’t countenance such a thing.

Jessie Barr has seen the Olympics from the inside as part of the women’s 4x400m relay team that failed to advance from their heat at the 2012 Games in London. Now a sports psychologist, she has been working with members of Team Ireland for some time and is part of the Team Ireland staff here in Tokyo. Part of her brief now and in the weeks and months to come will be working with athletes whose results did not match their own expectations or — and this is a large part of this picture — the expectations of a media and public that tends to turn an intense spotlight on them after four years of general indifference.

“They may have qualified 40th and then they’re berated because: ‘I thought they were good, I’m seeing them everywhere, but she didn’t even make a final’. And that can be really challenging because the expectations don’t match up to what the athlete’s capabilities are,” Barr said pre-Games.

“If they’re finalist potential and they don’t, OK, it’s a disappointment and these things happen, but a lot of athletes are going out there and it’s not that they’re making up numbers, they may have just been at the level where they are just qualifying. Does that mean they’re a failure? Absolutely not. Getting to an Olympics is really, really hard.”

The rest of us can move on. Turn to the other channel, move on to the next big thing.

Every athlete returning from Tokyo will take months, in some cases years, to fully assimilate their time in Japan. For some, this will be a swansong. Others will be hoping to absorb the hurt and the lessons and come back better.

For them, the Games won’t end with the closing ceremony.

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