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'The first year at times was embarrassing. 'These guys won a World Cup and now they can’t even compete''

Mark Downey recalls the difficult journey that ultimately led to securing a spot at the Olympics.

Mark Downey and Felix English.
Mark Downey and Felix English.
Image: Bradley Collyer

MARK DOWNEY, ALONG with team-mate Felix English, recently qualified Ireland a spot for the Olympics in track cycling. In his third column for The42, he recalls the moment he discovered he had earned a place at the Tokyo Olympics and the unlikely set of circumstances that surrounded it.

We went to the World Championships and we knew Hong Kong had to have a bad day and we had to have a good day for us to secure an Olympic spot. 

In the build up, I thought about it nearly every night: how do we approach the race?

Before we left our base in Majorca, I asked our Technical Director Brian Nugent: ‘What do you think?’ He said: ‘There are only two ways. You are either going to have to take the bull by the horns or be really intelligent about it.’

When it was a high-performance race, we always performed really well, whereas the Hong Kong guys didn’t. They always had a nice wee move at a nice wee moment when everyone is tired, whereas at the World Championships, you don’t get that, it’s relentless, everyone is delivering their best performance, everyone has their best team out.

We made the call the night before: ‘We really have to be smart. Hold on and take an advantage when we get it.’

It was a game of poker really. If it worked, we were heroes for a while, if it didn’t, it would have been: ‘Why didn’t you take the race by the scruff of the neck?’

We started the race and Hong Kong decided to go for the first sprint. I wasn’t laughing, but I was thinking, either they’re on for a really good day, or this is going to go south for them.

We just had to sit tight, wait, and hopefully it comes good for us. I don’t really know how it did, but it did in the end.

It was frustrating beforehand. Me and Felix always felt we were a lot better than being 16th in the rankings. We both competed in our individual events and guys who were ahead us, we thought: ‘We can beat these guys no problem.’

We had a difficult time in the months leading to the event. But we just didn’t stop believing. We just had so much stuff thrown at us. The World Championships was our last hurdle.

I said to Felix: ‘We can go home after tomorrow, maybe one of us wants to retire and the other to keep going. But don’t leave it to chance. There’s still the smallest possibility that we could do it.’ I said: ‘I’m going to die trying.’ He said: ‘I’m the exact same.’ When you have two guys trying to do that, it definitely makes it a bit easier.

We definitely were nervous, we didn’t get much sleeping done. Normally I wouldn’t be a nervous guy — I’d take confidence in my past performances. I had a really good winter. Then with the World Championships, it threw me off my course again. It was a horrible 48 hours going into maybe the biggest race of your career for the Olympics.

After the race, we all were singing and dancing. The video went all over Ireland. We were so assured that we’d got it.

Then suddenly doubts started to emerge over whether or not we had actually qualified.

Hong Kong were ranked 17th. You have 30 minutes after the race to appeal the results. A rule came out in November that if you don’t finish, you get the place of the last team who finish the race. It means Hong Kong could have been joint 16th. I don’t really know how this rule came about.

The way I look at it, how can you have a joint 16th? It doesn’t really make sense. The American team pulled out with 18 laps to go and the Hong Kong team pulled out with 140 laps to go. And they’re both given the same positions? 

And that rule change made it appear we were in danger of not being given the qualification spot, as Hong Kong would have been awarded extra points if they were ranked joint 16th as opposed to 17th.

There were a couple of emails going around and there were a few nervous days for sure, I didn’t know what was going on myself. Everyone was asking me. Could there be a court case?

But when you sit down and look at the rule in black and white, how can you, in any sport, cater for a team that didn’t finish? You can give a team more advantage for not finishing than actually finishing. I think when you put it in that context, it doesn’t make any sense.

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Thankfully it worked out okay for us and we secured our spot at the Olympics.

Reflecting on our journey, we went from cloud nine, winning left right and centre to being average Joe Bloggs’.

People had said it’s going to get harder, but when you’re in that position of doing well, you just get thinking ‘I’m the best at the moment, so it’s quite easy,’ but we definitely got a good kicking thereafter.

We began to think: ‘Are we actually capable, or at the standard to compete at this level?’ The first year at times was embarrassing. People thought: ‘These guys won a World Cup and now they can’t even compete anymore.’ What’s happened?

But this year, there was still that glimpse in every race. We kept fighting with every opportunity. So I think that showed us we were never going to give up and it taught us a lesson that it wasn’t over until it was over.

A lot of people around us started believing that there was the glimpse in the back of their mind that we could do it. I don’t really know how we managed. I think just delivering when it really matters was key.

It’s nice to get a shot of redemption and realise we’re still at that level and that capability. And that’s the way I’m looking at the next year or so. A lot can change in that time. We’ve got the ticket so now it’s what we make of it.

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About the author:

Mark Downey

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