Extra Time with Ronan Quirke
There are some moments in sport that are truly unique and which fill your heart when you witness them. One example would be Kilkenny supporters leaving Croke Park early as they have been truly vanquished, an experience I have thoroughly enjoyed on more than one occasion.
One example would be Kilkenny supporters leaving Croke Park early as they have been truly vanquished, an experience I have thoroughly enjoyed on more than one occasion.
Another would be a New Zealand team performing the haka. This pre-match ritual has its detractors for sure and the suggestion that it confers an advantage to the All Blacks carries weight. But it is an ancient ritual of throwing down a challenge to your opponent. It signifies pride, strength and unity and was adopted by the all-conquering New Zealand touring side in 1905.
That team was captained by Dave Gallaher, born in Ramelton Co. Donegal, and it helped to unify a team composed of native Maori and white settlers, like Gallaher. It survives to this day but perhaps the greatest haka moment for me was when Rua Tipoki, Doug Howlett, Jeremy Manning and Lifeimi Mafi stepped forward and performed their native ritual to the visiting All Blacks in Thomond Park in 2008. Tipoki had contacted his elders in New Zealand prior to the event to ensure that no offence might be taken to a quartet of opposition players laying down a challenge to the All Blacks. I have simply never heard Thomond Park sound louder that it did at that moment.
The stadium erupted in noise and then almost as quickly fell utterly silent as the New Zealand team responded to the challenge in kind. It encapsulated all that is great about rugby union and the respect afforded by the players and supporters to each other and to their opponent’s cultural heritage. If you were there, you know how emotional and unique a moment it was, if you were not so lucky, I encourage you to seek it out on YouTube.
Which brings me to my third great sporting event, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. It only happens once every four years and it is the culmination of years of planning by the host city. It burns for the duration of the games and is used to signify continuity between the ancient and the modern games. Months before the games are due to start the flame is lit by the sun in Olympia in Greece and it then sets out on its relay to the host city. It is a powerful sporting symbol, first used in the modern games at Amsterdam in 1928. A hugely important games from an Irish and Tipperary perspective.
Pat O’Callaghan was only 25 when he won our first Olympic gold medal as an independent nation in Amsterdam. He had been a recent convert to hammer throwing and had honed his skill in his native Cork. But he had moved in Clonmel to practice medicine in 1928 where he lived the rest of his life.
He would retain his gold medal four years later in 1932 just an hour after Dromineer native Bob Tisdall had won gold in the 400m hurdles. Two men with strong Tipperary connections winning Olympic gold medals inside 60 minutes. Had ‘The Doc’ been allowed to compete in Berlin in 1936 he would have been favourite for the gold medal as he was throwing the hammer further than anyone else at the time.
In 1937, incredibly, he threw that hammer more than seven feet further than the world record at the time, a record that was never recognised. Very few Olympic athletes have won gold medals in the same event in three successive Olympic games. Pat O’Callaghan might well have been one of the first and would be mentioned in the same breath as legendary Olympians such as Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon.
We should all be thrilled that these Tokyo Olympic games are taking place and that the pandemic delayed but did not deny our
athletes the opportunity to compete. A four year Olympic cycle is very much the crowing glory of an athlete’s career. To train hard enough to qualify, to train smart enough to peak for the games and to be very lucky along the way is an arduous process. Take our rower Sanita Puspure for example. She is 39 now and this will probably be her last games, certainly her last as a single sculler. This time last year when the games were due to take place she was the double world champion and in the form of her life. She had tailored all of her training for the Tokyo games and was one of our brightest medal prospects. Covid-19 intervened and the games were postponed for 12 months. And the training schedule is recalibrated, the mental preparation starts over. And it is for wonderful athletes like Sanita that we should celebrate these games going ahead. That she has been given the opportunity to reach an Olympic final and deliver on her natural talent is the least that all her years of sacrifice deserve.
But sacrifice in pursuit of your Olympic dream is not always rewarded. Tipperary athlete Sharlene Mawdsley had been a member of the 4 x 400 meter mixed relay team that had qualified for the Tokyo Games earlier this year. Her home town of Newport were justifiably proud of their athlete and she was inundated with good luck and congratulations messages. She had continued her preparations in order to peak for the games this week. We all felt that her seat on the plane to Japan was as good as secured. But earlier this month, just days before the team were heading off, she received a phone call to say that she had not been selected. She described her emotions to RTE as being ‘devastated’ and ‘totally heartbroken’. I cannot imagine how difficult a phone call that would have been both to make and to receive. Her commitment to the relay had counted for naught. She had earned the right to call
herself an Olympian and now it was taken from her at the 11th hour. She deserves our admiration and respect just as much as those who made the journey to Japan.
An opportunity to represent your country at the games is a really rare honour and it might only be a realistic goal once in your career. Martin Fennessy of Clonmel Boxing Club often tells me that it is harder to qualify for an Olympic Games than it is to medal at one. That is certainly the case in boxing where so many great amateur boxers never got the opportunity to take to the ring in the greatest stage of them all. Clonmel’s Dean Gardiner was one fight away from Rio last time out. And had he got to Rio? Well who knows? That epitomises just how hard it is to get there.
In 1988, Anthony O’Gorman was the National Cycling Road Racing champion. An honour that has been bestowed on three Clonmel natives but Anthony was champion in an Olympic year. And in an Olympic year, the reigning national champion was always selected for the Olympic road race. Not so in 1988 and Anthony O’Gorman was not selected for Seoul. Much like the treatment of Sharlene Mawdsley, Anthony was never offered an explanation for his omission. He just had to accept that his Olympic dream would never be realised. We spoke about this during an Extra Time program during the first lockdown and he was typically sanguine about it. He had made peace with it and it doesn’t keep him awake at night. I very much doubt it I could have coped with such disappointment as well.
As a wise man once told me, ‘in Tipperary, you don’t have to travel far to meet your heroes’.
Let the Games begin.
Join Ronan on the Extra Time Sports Program on TippFM
Monday nights at 7pm.