Tokyo Olympics: Everyone has a moving story and a nation rooting in corner

Tokyo Olympics: Everyone has a moving story and a nation rooting in corner

IRISH AND PROUD: Ireland’s Nhat Nguyen reacts after winning his Badminton men’s singles Group F match against Sri Lanka’s Nikula Karunaratne 21-16, 21-14 yesterday. Picture: Inpho/Morgan Treacy

Global though it is, the Olympics have a tendency to bring out the local in all of us.

Athletes from around the world, and from all manner of pursuits, are hothoused in one city and yet onlookers of every nationality bring a tunnel vision to it all as they concentrate obsessively on their own. It’s human nature and it never changes.

We can all tune in to ooh and aah over the brilliance of a Simone Biles but throw a singlet of our own into the ring and other athletes fade into the background. Key actors playing uncredited roles in our eyes.

The Yomiuri Shimbun dedicated seven pages to the Games in Monday’s edition and every one of the many photos used focused purely on Japanese participants. Theirs is just a glasshouse in full view at this time. No-one is in any position to throw stones.

Ireland’s Games have so far been headlined by hard luck stories.

Sure, there have been impressive efforts, mostly those involving water, but the tears shed by Jack Woolley and Emmet Brennan in recent days have been the most notable storylines to date as we await a first medal.

Their stories, and others like them, reveal depths of torment and frustration that we rarely see so publicly from our sports stars, but our absorption in these very real and moving dramas shouldn’t obscure the fact that we have no monopoly on heartbreak or inspiration.

Woolley’s grief was heart-rending but think of the emotions felt by the man who defeated him. Lucas Lautaro Guzman almost quit taekwondo two years ago, the Argentinian having flirted with the idea of just spending more time with his family after the death of his mother.

The woman who ended Michaela Walsh’s Olympic dream in the ring on Monday was Irma Testa, an Italian who followed her sister Lucia into the sport as a 12-year old and whose motivation has long been fuelled by the sexism she encountered.

“I was motivated but the coaches told me that I should be in the kitchen instead, that it was not my place to be there. My sister quit after a few weeks, but I am going to the Olympic Games,” she explained five years ago. Testa was the first Italian woman to represent her country in the ring when she appeared in Rio. She wrote a book about her struggles called Heart of a Boxer after that experience in Brazil. A documentary called Butterfly followed just last year.

Testa has heard anecdotal evidence of more young girls climbing between the ropes on the back of her journey and her willingness to highlight it and Carlo Paalam’s rise from the rubbish tips of Cagayan de Oro to these Games is serving a similar purpose.

For Paalam, his defeat of Brendan Irvine in the flyweight division was just another link in the chain that allowed the Filipino to break free from an appalling childhood that was spent scavenging for scrap on landfills and this after his mother walked out on the family.

He was only six when that happened. Boxing made its entrance within a year, the youngster having been spotted in a backyard bout by a neighbour and he was soon winning a first amateur bout and using the prize to buy rice for his family.

Two more years of rummaging through the city’s trash had still to follow before Paalam was offered a place in a training programme that set them up with monthly allowances and contributed to their board so that they could continue in school.

Paalam is one of four Filipino boxers on duty in Japan this week and all of them have spoken in the past about how the sport was pursued at least in part for its potential to help alleviate the financial shortcomings that they and their families faced every day.

“The reason I chose boxing is because I can help my family and study for free,” said the women’s featherwight Nesthy Petecio. “There are a lot of opportunities for me in the sport. At first, it wasn’t my choice. It was more for self-defence only.”

Everyone has a story. And a nation in the corner.

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