The Olympic Games, which closed in London last night, were generally considered to have been a great success.
The Irish team will be returning with five medals, which equals the greatest number of medallists of any Games since this country won its independence.
Issues surrounding the delay or failure to provide a suitable homecoming reception should not obscure the fact that the one gold, one silver and three bronze medals equals the number and composition of medals won by Irish athletes at the Melbourne Games in 1956.
The latest Games were a notable success in that the big news was sport itself, not violence, as in Munich in 1972, or the naked propaganda that permeated earlier Games in Berlin and Helsinki, or the boycotts that marred Montreal, Moscow, and Los Angeles.
The performance of competitors was the main news this time, and this was highlighted by exceptional television coverage. The range of sports probably surprised most people watching the spectacular coverage. It will undoubtedly encourage people, especially younger people, to engage in a range of sports about which they previously knew little. This is a reflection of the Olympic spirit, which puts more emphasis on participation than actual performance.
These Games provide valuable role models. All too often, the news from earlier games was sullied by dodgy officiating decisions that had more to do with political ideology than sporting prowess. Recent Olympiads have been blemished by suspicions of drug use, the eradication of which still poses a real challenge.
The British were ecstatic about their successes in track and field. The team won four gold medals, compared with no track or field gold medal when the games were last held in London in 1948.
Ireland did not win any medal in athletics at those Games either. Ironically the first woman to win an Olympic medal representing Ireland was the only Irish medallist in 1948. Letitia Hamilton won a bronze medal for her painting of a point-to-point race.
Before anyone gets carried away with the contrast of the recent haul of medals, it is worth remembering that athletes born in Ireland won no less than five gold, three silver, and two bronze medals in track and field at the earlier Games held in London in 1908.
Notwithstanding Robert Heffernan’s magnificent 4th place in the longest race of all, the 50km walk, we should surely be examining the reasons for the comparative demise of Irish athletics over the past century. Our schools system has improved greatly, but the area of physical education has been seriously neglected.
This is probably because it is not on the examination curriculum. When the Leaving Certificate results come out this week, there will be no points for physical exercise.
Surely it is time that our educational system encourage wider participation in the broad range of activities on view over the past fortnight.
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