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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 23 February, 2019

Rio 2016: How our athletes salvaged some pride in an Irish Olympics of scandal

Disappointment in the boxing ring but, overall, Ireland’s athletes punched above their weight as chaos raged around them.

Silver medal winners Annalise Murphy and Gary O'Donovan celebrate.
Silver medal winners Annalise Murphy and Gary O'Donovan celebrate.

— Niall Kelly reports from Rio de Janeiro

LET’S BE HONEST, the greatest trick that the IOC ever pulled was convincing the world that the Olympic Games was about sport.

Maybe it was once upon a time — back in the good old days when that lad Leonidas of Rhodes was setting records that would last for 2000 years.

But the Ancient Games, or the Citius, Altius, Fortius idealism of Pierre de Coubertin’s modern reboot, aren’t even distant cousins of the hyper-commercialised swamp of bureaucratic backslapping and glad-handing that have subsumed what should be the pinnacle of human athletic achievement.

It was obvious, long before the circus rolled into town and the Olympic cauldron was lit, that Rio 2016 was going to be an ethical and moral minefield. The usual pre-Games concerns about cost overrun, shoddy infrastructure and shameless waste were magnified a thousand-fold in a city where the division between rich and poor, have and have not, is already jarringly stark.

And then somehow, Ireland managed to insert itself into the middle of the infamy.

Well, not quite Ireland. If the IOC can so easily distance themselves from one of their 15-strong golden circle and their $900 a day per diems, then surely there’s no issue dissociating Pat Hickey from the country he so patently feels that he has outgrown. Whatever it was that the police were alleging as they hammered on the door of his son’s hotel room and broadcast images of a naked 71-year-old man around the world, it was not in Ireland’s name, that’s for sure.

Pat Hickey is escorted from hospital Hickey: set to appear in Brazilian court on Tuesday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As the Games came to a close in the iconic Maracanã Stadium on Sunday night, the plot thickened. With Hickey literally Bangu’d Up Abroad while he waits for Tuesday’s court hearing, Brazilian police got a warrant to seize the passports of six more Irish officials, including FAI chief executive John Delaney, as part of their investigation into the OCI ticket touting scandal. When the story of Rio 2016 is told years from now, there’ll be no hiding from Ireland’s most important contribution.

Where it really mattered — on the medal table — we never managed to meet our pre-Games expectations, but it is well worth remembering that more than 60% of the countries are going home from here empty-handed. For all of the Olympics’ many ills, each medal is still incredibly hard-won; two of them should be treasured, not sniffed at.

Gary O'Donovan Gary O'Donovan carries the Irish flag at the Olympics closing ceremony on Sunday night. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A nightmare two weeks in the boxing ring cast a shadow over everything else that was impossible to shake. The Teatro Bradesco, a concert hall nestled in away in one of Barra di Tijuca’s plush shopping malls, has seen its fair share of unexpected plot twists on its stage but as it hosted the boxing draw on the day before the opening ceremony, a truth stranger than fiction was starting to unfold.

The Irish coaches were blindsided as news of Michael O’Reilly’s failed drugs test broke in Ireland and then, moments later, in Brazil. Chaos was the order of the day as rumour, speculation and half-truths rushed to fill the void. Neither the Irish Amateur Boxing Association nor the Olympic Council sought to take any sort of control and bring clarity to the scandal. In hindsight, the knock-on effects on the camp were glaringly obvious.

“The way it was handled was the hardest thing for us all,” Michael Conlan said in a lengthy interview with The Star’s Kieran Cunningham last weekend. “Once it came out, our team manager should have stepped up and started talking more.

“My Dad was flung into the spotlight. He said what he had to say, he doesn’t hold his tongue. It could cost him his job, but he’s an honest person. He’s honest with himself.”

Michael Conlan following his defeat to Vladimir Nikitin Conlan: robbed of his Olympic dream.

With an Olympic champion, two-time Olympic medallist and reigning world champion in their midst, this was unquestionably the most talented squad that Ireland has ever put together. That they would still be boxing at the business end of the tournament was taken as given; the question was not if they would be bringing medals home, but how many.

As if by reflex, the finger of blame immediately pointed at the sports administrators again, this time Fergal Carruth and the IABA bigwigs who were so blind as to force Billy Walsh out of a job. Walsh’s ghost haunted us in Riocentro Pavilion 6; his US boxing team left with three medals, one of each colour, more than the entire Irish team combined.

The problems — O’Reilly’s stupidity, Paddy Barnes’s weight struggle, Joe Ward’s tactics, Katie Taylor’s loss of form — didn’t boil down to Walsh alone but it’s impossible to shake the sense that this team would have been much better off with him in their corner.

His presence wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference to Conlan, robbed of his Olympic dream by the most dubious judging. The Belfast fighter’s searing post-fight comments made headlines around the world. The AIBA (again, more administrators) were shamed into the pretence of action, making scapegoats of a handful of judges by sending them home and then doing a quick personnel reshuffle at executive level.

More telling was the line in their press release which reiterated the AIBA’s “zero tolerance policy towards fair play in boxing.” Indeed.

Rio Olympic Games 2016 - Day Six Katie Ledecky: US swimmer was one of the stars of Rio. Source: Lee Jin-man

The wave after wave of scandal and controversy would fatigue even the most blinkered Olympics lover and yet, as is typically the case, these Games served up so many moments to delight, wow, and inspire.

Phelps. Ledecky. Bolt. Biles.

For Brazil too, there were moments to treasure, even if many would still rather have nothing to do with these Games given the opportunity. Rafaela Silva, raised in the notorious ‘City of God’ favela, winning the hosts’ first gold medal of the games. A tearful Diego Hypolito, still carrying the scars of the mistakes made in Beijing and London, winning gymnastics silver on the floor. Neymar’s penalty to win the men’s gold medal, a moment for all of this football-mad nation to cherish and savour together.

In Ireland, the past 16 days will be rightfully remembered and celebrated for our medal winners. Gary and Paul O’Donovan, athletes and ambassadors, who claimed silver in the men’s lightweight double sculls rowing and then claimed hearts at home and around the world with an infectious charm that was a timely reminder of how joyous the Olympics can still be.

Annalise Murphy, heartbroken in Weymouth four years ago, her redemption song here at Marina da Gloria an incredible life lesson about the power of courage and resilience.

Paul and Gary O'Donovan celebrate winning a silver medal Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Annalise Murphy celebrate's with her family at her medal ceremony Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Once you looked outside the ring, Irish athletes were outperforming expectations at every turn. Only two pieces of extra luggage to take home, sure, but a long line of individual bests that we should rightly be proud of, too many to list.

Thomas and Fionnuala and Rob and Sinéad and Clare and Scott and Oliver and Leona and Judy and Jonty and Natalya and Arthur.

And the rest. National records, personal bests, new ground broken, and trails blazed across the 77-strong team.

So the Olympics’ reputation and idealism is still as rotten and make-believe as ever as the book closes on Rio and we hand over to Tokyo where we’ll do it all again in four years’ time, but don’t let meddling administrators triumph at the expense of the athletes who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of the dream and then came here and realised it.

The darkness has been overwhelming at times over the last few weeks — for Ireland, and for sport in general — but there are cracks in everything.

As the man says, that’s how the light gets in.

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Brazilian judge issues warrant for passport of John Delaney and five other OCI officials

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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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