Olympic heroes cheered us up when we needed it most

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It was the Olympics that almost didn’t happen. Covid ruled out the Tokyo Games even before reaching the start line last year. The same thing was feared to happen this summer as the start date approached and the pandemic persisted. It wasn’t until we saw Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka lower the torch to light the Olympic flame that we could truly believe it was moving forward.

okyo 2020: the year in the name has remained the same but so different. The athletes would compete in front of empty stands. In addition to the usual elite-level performance requirements, there is the need for constant vigilance to escape the coronavirus.

In this context, the achievements of the Irish Olympians are all the more remarkable. Even at the best of times, reaching the Games is an incredible achievement; standing up to the best in the world is impressive; making the podium is almost superhuman.

To Ireland’s list of Olympic gold medalists we can now add the names of Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, the rowers of Skibbereen and – in a spectacular climax of the Olympic Games in Ireland – boxer Kellie Harrington of the north of Dublin city center. There were bronze medals for rowers Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty in the women’s four and boxing for Belfast welterweight Aidan Walsh. We salute them as we salute all Irish competitors. They boosted the morale of the nation when it was needed most.

The drama, the tension and the celebrations were of course not confined to Ireland. Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of this generation, if not any other, sparked a much needed conversation about athlete mental health when she retired from a number of events. The American’s smile as she returned to hit her routine on the beam, winning bronze in the process, was a highlight of any Games.

Elsewhere, new benchmarks have been set. Special mention goes to Norway’s Karsten Warholm, who broke the men’s 400m hurdles world record in what this diary’s Cathal Dennehy wrote could be the greatest race of all time.

In the medals around the neck, the Irish winners have their visible symbol of success. It is the reward for their dedication, early beginnings, hard training, “the lonely times, the tears” in the words of Kellie Harrington.

Beyond this precious metal, they can be proud of other intangible qualities. They showed humility, gratitude and team spirit. Think of Harrington, after the victory that made her the third Irish woman to win Olympic gold, saying ‘it doesn’t define me as a person’ and ‘I’m not going to change from here on out’. Think about O’Donovan and McCarthy’s modest assertion after winning gold that they “were just trying to do our best.”

International sporting success inspires the best imitators. Take the reported boom in the number of girls entering boxing after Katie Taylor’s gold medal at the London Games in 2012. Irish rowing and boxing clubs can expect renewed interest. In all sports, the Games will have planted a seed for future generations of Irish competitors. Based on this year’s evidence, the harvest will be a joy to see.


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