Olympics: Irish athletes may have been at their best in defeat

Winning Irish rowers are great role models, but John Roycroft has also admired the way the vanquished have handled themselves
Olympics: Irish athletes may have been at their best in defeat

Ireland’s Sanita Puspure dejected after the Women’s Single Sculls semi-final at Sea Forest Waterway, Tokyo, Japan. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

In the immediate euphoria of Fintan McCarthy and Paul O'Donovan's brilliant victory in the Lightweight Double Sculls in Tokyo, it is understandable that we have all bathed in the good feelings that the triumph brought us.

Gold medals do not come along that often for Ireland, so we are absolutely within our rights to enjoy these glorious moments, not least the people of Skibbereen.

But for every gold medal added to Ireland’s win column, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes from these shores that had their ultimate Olympic dream painfully extinguished and that's just among the minority of athletes that even managed to qualify for an Olympics.

The stark difference between triumph and defeat was uncomfortably shown to us rather quicker than we would have wanted on the very night of our greatest triumph in rowing. Just minutes after we (those who were awake) celebrated the Skibb lads' breathtaking victory, Cork’s other strong medal hope, Sanita Puspure, lined up at the start of her Women’s Single Sculls semi-final. Such was the elation after the lads win and my belief in Sanita’s invincibility that it came as much a shock as it was disappointing when she uncharacteristically crashed out of qualifying for the final.

For years now Sanita has been such a ubiquitous presence at medal ceremonies that many of us were lulled into a sense of optimism for her chances when the Olympics came around. But what Sanita demonstrated so vividly last Thursday morning was that form and success is a walk along a precariously narrow tightrope, where the slightest disturbance in preparation, energy, or mental readiness can totally throw out an athlete’s equilibrium.

I found Sanita’s defeat a gut-wrenching moment, especially when it came so soon after our great moment of national delight just minutes earlier. It was evident from Sanita’s body language, after the race, that she was devastated both physically and emotionally by the setback. 

One cannot imagine the hurt she was feeling after the finish. The years of preparation, sacrifice, and work for this moment inexplicably lost at moment it was most needed. One explanation I’ve heard that seem very plausible was that the year delay saw Sanita peak for the Olympics last year and that having to hold her form for another year was a bridge too far for the Ballincollig woman. Her role of medals at the European and world level only leading up to this defeat lends credence to this theory even if it will offer no real consolation to Sanita I imagine.

Ireland’s Phil Healy trails in the  Women’s 200m Heats at the Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Ireland’s Phil Healy trails in the  Women’s 200m Heats at the Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Events later in the week brought us more disappointment.

The setback of boxer Aidan Walsh (injury), was followed by defeats on the track by Ballineen's Phil Healy,  Tomas Barr, and the 4x400m relay team, Rhys McClenaghan in gymnastics and the women's hockey team all gave frank and honest interviews after explaining their performances. They were upset but not full of self-sympathy and were insightful to what let them down on the day.

Ireland's Rory Mcilroy reacts after putting on the 18th hole in round 4 of the mens golf individual stroke play during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe Picture:  KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images
Ireland's Rory Mcilroy reacts after putting on the 18th hole in round 4 of the mens golf individual stroke play during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe Picture:  KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

Last weekend, both Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy put in a team performance probably unrivalled in Irish Olympic history, with both men in the mix right up until the very last round and eventually the seven-way playoff for bronze in McIlroy’s case.

Prior to the Olympics, Rory was criticised for his lukewarm embrace of Team Ireland and the Olympic spirit. By the end, the Down man announced he "had never played so hard to come third" in his life. With it, he found a new affection for this momentary return to amateur play and he declared he was looking forward to doing it again in Paris in three years.

And that’s what’s been so heart-warming about this Olympics for those of us following the Irish team.

It’s totally right to celebrate the exploits and triumphs of the Skibbereen duo. They deserve it and the nation along with West Cork deserve to enjoy it after the last two years we’ve had. But I’m glad to see that so many remarks on social media and beyond have also appreciated the work of all involved in the Irish team’s efforts. 

We have lived the successes with the rowers and the boxers and we have commiserated the defeats of our other extraordinary athletes. 

They are a great advertisement of a young generation so often criticised and categorised as whining millennials. Their honest endeavours and joyful embrace of the Olympic spirit has been as refreshing and enjoyable as the medal triumphs themselves.

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