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Who are Ireland’s best Olympic medal hopes in Tokyo?

Over the next two weeks The42 will be keeping track of all our athletes as they go for gold.

Image: Detlev Seyb/INPHO

ONLY 116 IRISH athletes will appear in these Games. For some, glory will come. For the rest, sadness, what-ifs, sliding door moments, regrets and heartache.

They represent the best of us, sharing our dreams, as well as carrying them. For the first time ever at a summer Olympics, there will be Irish teams in women’s hockey, Rugby Sevens and mixed relay in athletics. Last time the Games were in Tokyo, way back in 1964, only 24 athletes walked behind the Irish flag. This time around, the question is: who will raise it?

Here are our leading contenders.

PAUL O’DONOVAN AND FINTAN MCCARTHY (Rowing: men’s lightweight double sculls)

O’Donovan won silver with his brother Gary four years ago when they ‘pulled like a dog’ in Rio. A four-time world champion – the last of these titles came in 2019 when he was partnered by McCarthy to take the lightweight double sculls title. Their form has held up since, with the O’Donovan/McCarthy combo winning the European title this year as well as the World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne. Their final is next Thursday at 1.50am. It’ll be worth staying up for.

KELLIE HARRINGTON (Boxing: women’s lightweight)

The Five Lamps is the most notable landmark in Dublin’s north inner city, each lamp pointing in a different direction. One goes left towards Ballybough, the estate where Irish football internationals Curtis Fleming and Jack Byrne grew up; another shines towards the North Strand, where Keith Andrews, a veteran of 35 Irish caps, spent the first ten years of his life. A third lamp is directed towards Seville Place, home to Keith Treacy, a Premier League debutant at 19, while Graham Burke has the fourth lamp all to himself.

It’s the fifth lamp, however, that has the brightest bulb. Its glare takes in the streets where Wes Hoolahan, the tidy little playmaker whose eye-of-the-needle cross created Robbie Brady’s winning goal against Italy at Euro 2016, was brought up. Directly across the road from Hoolahan is Portland Place, Stephen Elliott’s birthplace. And just over the wall from Elliott’s old house is the home of Troy Parrott, the current big hope. And just down the road from Parrott, Hoolahan and Elliott is Kellie Harrington’s birthplace.

Harrington (below) won a light welterweight silver medal at the 2016 World Championship and then took the world lightweight championship in 2018. A hand injury interrupted her schedule in 2019 but after winning gold at the final Olympic qualifying event in June, she is back in form and has a great chance of medalling in Tokyo.

kellie-harrington-announced-as-flag-bearer-for-the-team-ireland Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

RHYS MCCLENAGHAN (Gymnastics: men’s pommel horse)

If McClenaghan wins gold then there will be an obvious request for Amhran Na Bhfiann to be followed by My Lovely Horse. He certainly has a chance of getting onto the podium, having won European championship gold in 2018 and a world championship bronze in 2019. Fifth in this year’s Europeans, he has devised a routine he is convinced will bring glory.

“I always had some sort of drive and vision of greatness,” he told The42 last year. “If it was a swimming gala I was at, I pictured myself at the Olympic Games. Leaping through the air at gymnastics, it was the same image I had of myself.”

Irish people aren’t meant to be this confident, not outwardly anyway. We’re meant to be awkward and self-deprecating. “Yeah, I get that but I truly believe I can do it,” McClenaghan says. Don’t doubt him.

SANITA PUSPURE (Rowing: women’s single sculls)

Born in Latvia, Purpure moved to Ireland in 2006 and resumed her career in a green singlet in 2010. Winning back-to-back world championships (2018- 2019) as well as successive European titles (2019-2020) have shortened her odds of finally winning an Olympic medal. She was Ireland’s only rower in London 2012, also competed in Rio and won bronze in this year’s World Cup II.

JACK WOOLLEY (Taekwondo: class 58kg)

Ireland’s first ever Olympian in Taekwondo, Woolley (below) won silver at the European Championships and US Open, gold at the Australian and Turkish Opens and was ninth in the World Championships. He has also had top five finishes in the World Grand Prix, the 2021 Europeans and this year’s Sofia Open, a title he won last year. Ranked fourth in the world, he believes in himself. “With lockdown and the postponement of the Games, I’ve had a year to get better,” he said. “I have had time to develop into a better athlete.” This Saturday we’ll see for ourselves.

jack-woolley-in-action-against-cihat-cakmat Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

ANNALISE MURPHY (Sailing: Laser Radial)

Fourth in London, silver medallist in Rio, Murphy took time out in 2017 to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-2018. She then returned to Laser Radial in January 2020, finishing 12th at the 2020 World Championships. The fact she has been there and done that will stand to her in Tokyo.

RORY MCILROY/SHANE LOWRY (Men’s golf)

No other sport is like golf in the sense that on any given week, any player in the world’s top 100 is capable of winning a Major, or in this case, an Olympic gold. So whereas a world ranking of 10th would ordinarily preclude an athlete in another sport from being a realistic medal contender, Rory McIlroy knows – deep down – that if things click, then he’ll be doing something major in next week’s non-Major.

Similarly, Shane Lowry can win here. His form over the last couple of months has been excellent – and a top 12 at the Open wasn’t a fair reflection of how well he played at Royal St George’s. You just can’t rule either man out – because they have each won bigger events than this.

AIDAN WALSH (Men’s boxing: light welterweight)

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There’s an old saying in pro boxing that the sport isn’t always about how hard you hit but how hard you negotiate. In other words, fairness doesn’t always come into it.

The Walsh family discovered this for themselves this morning. Brother and sister have both qualified for the Games, Michaela originally considered the better medal prospect.

carl-frampton-with-aidan-and-michaela-walsh Aidan and Michaela Walsh with Carl Frampton. Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

Then she got handed the hardest draw imaginable and her prospects – although still real – diminished. Walsh will face either Italy’s Irma Testa — against whom she has both won and lost this year — or her 2019 World Championship conqueror, Liudmilla Vorontsova of Russia, for a place in the last eight. Aidan, her brother, is a Commonwealth Games silver medallist and defeated Ukraine’s Yevheni Barabandy to secure his Olympic spot. He is two wins away from medalling here after getting a bye to the last 16 where he will meet either Eswatini’s Thabiso Dlamini or Cameroonian Albert Mengue Ayissi. Win that and he will have a medal bout versus either Jordan, Mauritius or Canada. In other words, he has a great chance of medalling.

MEGAN FLETCHER (Judo: 70kg)

Having fought in the bronze medal play-off at this year’s World Championships, Fletcher has found form at the right time. Better again her experience of Rio will stand to her, as will the presence of her younger brother, Ben, who is also representing Ireland at these Games. He too is an outsider for a medal, having overcome a broken leg just six months ago to secure his ticket to Tokyo. As for Megan, the trials and tribulations of lockdown didn’t interrupt her rhythm, as she improvised her training plan to work out in her parents’ garden centre, placing a mat between two cactus plants. In 2019 Fletcher made the podium three times on the Grand Prix circuit. She has a chance of getting glory here.

LEONA MAGUIRE (Women’s golf)

After enjoying a magnificent season on the LPGA tour, where she has clocked up four top 10 finishes including a second placed finish at the Lotte Championship and Meijer Classic, Maguire has made everyone sit up and take notice of her. This is her second Olympics. She finished in a tie for 21st in Rio but is a much more complete player now.

PHILIP DOYLE/RONAN BYRNE (Rowing: men’s double skulls)

A silver medal at the 2019 World Rowing Championships qualified them for the Games. They won silver at the World Rowing Cup III in Rotterdam in 2019 and silver in World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne this year.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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