It’s often said that the Irish psyche reacts better to being an underdog rather than having the favourites’ tag, but we do have a suspicion that that’s a handy excuse.
Certainly, it wasn’t a comfort blanket that Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy needed as they went to Japan for the Olympic Games as favourites to win the men’s lightweight double sculls rowing and backed up that view with a superb performance to claim gold.
Given that it was the country’s first gold medal since Katie Taylor’s in 2012, the natural reaction of most was to celebrate the victory for what it was, two top practitioners franking their status as the world’s best. That’s the end of the spectrum we’d lean to as well, but of course there will never be unanimity with such things.
There were two debates sparked by the achievement. First of all, there was a view which could be basically distilled down to, it’s good the lads won but Ireland have a really poor record – look at other comparable countries population wise such as New Zealand and Croatia and you’ll see that we’ve actually under-achieved.
There’s a validity to that, but raising it in the immediate aftermath of a gold medal win is like going to a wedding and taking the microphone when the band take a break and listing out everything that was wrong with the church, the hotel and the mother-of-the-bride’s dress.
There’s always room to do better but gold medals will be inspirational in and of themselves. Children around Skibbereen and other rowing clubs will be drawn to give it a try while, you would hope, governing bodies in various other minority sports in Ireland will see that the pathway to success is one that has to be mapped out by them rather than waiting for someone else to tar the roads.
The second argument surrounding the number of medals surrounds those that can be legitimately counted. Of the 10 gold medals won in our nation’s history, three were won by 1932 – two for Pat O’Callaghan and one for Bob Tisdall – while Ronnie Delany’s win in 1956 was the last until Michael Carruth’s in 1992.
Taylor’s win and that of O’Donovan and McCarthy bring the figure to seven, with the other three having been claimed by swimmer Michelle Smith at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
On the one hand, people will point to circumstantial evidence, such as the unlikely improvement in times for a 26-year-old and culminating in the tampering of a urine sample in 1998 and a ban from competing; against that is the fact that she never failed a drugs test and the record books still show her as a three-time champion.
As with any social media-based conversation, there are trenchant people on both sides, which makes a common ground impossible to find. The airing of the topic on RTÉ Radio 1’s Liveline last week only gave a facile argument more oxygen, to the point where Smith issued a statement. Ostensibly congratulating the rowing medallists, there were four lines about them and 13 on Smith’s own successes, for which she says she remains immensely proud.
The official tallies show Ireland with 10 gold medals, but you can discount them if you want, or add a couple as compensation for the dodgy judging that saw Taylor and Michael Conlan eliminated in 2016 despite looking to have won their fights. The records will show what they show, you can be sceptical but it’s all history and anything that matters is ahead of us.
Overall, the tale of the Olympics from an Irish point of view is one of close calls rather than success – Thomas Barr grazing a hurdle and missing out on a final place, Rory McIlroy narrowly failing to come third in the golf, Rhys McClenaghan catching his finger in the pommel horse. Even Aidan Walsh, who had secured bronze by reaching his boxing semi-final, picked up an ankle injury while celebrating and had to withdraw from his semi-final bout.
Such is the way of things but each competitor was able to deal with their failure (relative failure – remember how hard it is to even reach the Olympics) in a level-headed manner and resolve to come back better.
The citius, altius, fortius motto of the Olympics may be taken to mean faster, higher, stronger than everyone else, but in fact Pierre de Coubertin said in 1908 that: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
The members of Team Ireland did that and those who get the opportunity again in Paris in 2024 will aim to go further, which is all that can be asked.
Well, after a break-neck championship season, all of a sudden we have just six games left to play at senior level, the semi-finals and finals in both codes.
This weekend it’s the hurling semi-finals and the prevailing mood is that we’re just marking time until Limerick retain the Liam MacCarthy and make it three wins in four years, but it’s worth remembering that we were in a not-dissimilar situation in 2019 and the Shannonsiders were beaten by Kilkenny in the last four.
John Kiely’s men are up against Waterford in a repeat of last year’s Munster and All-Ireland finals and, after a slow start to their year, the Déise are now on a roll, having followed a shaky win over Laois with victories against Galway and Tipperary.
While Tadhg de Búrca remains a large absence, the returns of Conor Prunty and Jamie Barron have brought them back close to the levels of 2020, while Liam Cahill has been able to build upon the good work of the first year.
On the other side, Kilkenny will be the favourites against Cork but there is definitely a spring in the Rebels’ step.
We haven’t had an All-Ireland final between the Leinster and Munster champions since 2016 – logic would say that gap will be bridged, but when did logic ever come into it?
GAA commitments have meant that I’ve been unable to watch a minute of the Lions’ South African tour so far, but I will admit that, despite being a supporter of Lions, I was hoping for a home win last Saturday.
While South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has teetered on the edge of acceptable behaviour with his conspiracy theories, referee criticisms and alleged Twitter burner accounts, another win for the Lions would have made for a dead rubber this weekend and instead we will have a winner-take-all final Test.
Given that the build-up was fairly low-key due to everything else going on, the mood has turned and it should make for a great spectacle. It’s unlikely the third Test will be remembered as one of the best games of all-time from an aesthetics point of view, but the intrigue and intensity will be huge.