Five years on from Rio and so much was different.
Paul O’Donovan has morphed from cleancut young man you’d be happy to pick up your daughter to hirsute dude whose gap year might have grown legs. His brother Gary, his partner when winning silver in 2016, is travelling reserve this time, his place in the men’s lightweight double sculls assumed by Fintan McCarthy.
Even the backdrop provided contrast. When the O’Donovans did their stuff on and off the course in 2016 it was in the sumptuous surrounds of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, a bowl of beauty that embraced the regatta tightly, the Christ The Redeemer statue looking down on them from on high as if in blessing on those competing.
The Sea Forest Waterway could never match that. Orphaned on an industrial spit of land in Tokyo Bay, it is a dystopian vision of shipyard cranes, rusting infrastructure and neglect. The impressive Tokyo Gate Bridge alleviates some of that, though the traffic that sprawls over and back acts more of a reminder that the city itself is going about its business while all this Olympic malarkey happens under its nose.
If all that made for a less romantic setting than in Brazil then it was very much in keeping with the way business was seen to here this morning as Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy franked their pre-Games status as hottest of favourites in the men’s lightweight double with a superb row that kept a committed and sustained German challenge at bay.
It was remorseless. Undeniable.
This was the Irish turning their back on the age-old role of underdog. No more tipping of the hat and ‘thank you sirs’. The Germans started quickly, pulling away for a spell before being reeled in and then kept at bay down a gripping last 500m-stretch. This was the New York Yankees clipping the ‘A’s. Man U putting Southampton to bed at Old Trafford.
In short, this was what they expected.
O’Donovan, the older and more experienced of the pair, has done the majority of the talking but his message has been consistent and low-key. There have been no dramatics or scares on their part this week, just a trio of note-perfect races, including a world’s best in the semi-final, that played out entirely as they would have expected.
If this all sounds, well, cold and perfunctory then it’s not to take from the outpouring of joy that will have accompanied their crossing of the line shortly before 2am Irish time. It is merely to point out that, rare as gold medals are for Team Ireland, this one has not been delivered from the blue or stumbled upon.
There are no crowds attending these Games but the numbers in the stands at most venues increases noticeably when finals come around as athletes from all countries and especially those from participating nations make it their business to be on site with their team livery and national flags.
The PA guy at the rowing has been laughably morose, his reading of the names before each race more akin to that of an obituary notice on local radio than an event which is supposed to be a joyous coming together and celebration of the world’s best athletes. Enjoyment and fulfilment are what you make of them though and there was plenty of both here.
It took a second after they finished for McCarthy to throw an arm to the air and punch the humid, sticky air. O’Donovan’s nod to their achievement was to half-turn and pat his colleague on the flank. The whoops and hollers from dry ground lingered longer before silence enveloped the course and the women’s lightweight pairs lined up.
The Olympic stops for no-one.
If the moment itself is fleeting then the achievement will outlive both of them. Only six people had won gold for Ireland at the Games before, Pat O’Callaghan claiming the first in the hammer throw back in 1928 when Amsterdam played host. The reality of elite sport is that the company you keep gets smaller and more select with every rung on the ladder.
And O’Donovan and McCarthy are at the very top.