Extra Time with Ronan Quirke
The games of the 32nd Olympiad came to a close on Sunday and collectively we got off the couch and wondered what to do with ourselves. Kellie Harrington brough the curtain down on a good Olympicsfrom an Irish perspective, good but not brilliant.
London 2012 and Melbourne 1956 have delivered more medals but we have not won more than one gold medal at a Games since Atlanta in 1996 and Los Angeles in 1932.There were some truly memorable moments such as the men’s high jump final when the gold medal was shared. A nod perhaps to the famous Ryder Cup moment between Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin in 1969.
The men’s 400m hurdles was a race that seemed to defy the laws of physics. Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands picking herself up off the track after falling on the last lap, chasing down the runners in front, before winning her heat of the 1500 meters. This was so reminiscent of Dave Wottle in the 1972 games in Munich which epitomised the ‘never give up’ attitudewhich Harrington also demonstrated in the second round of her gold medal bout.But there were some head scratching moments too. If you have not seen the show jumping from the women’s Modern Pentathlon then you had better brace yourself. The final of the men’s karate was hardly fair and we can only wonder what might have been for boxer Aidan Walsh.For me though, these games brought home a few themes that I have been struggling with. Firstly, how hard it is to qualify….. for some.
Perhaps we might contrast the Olympic journeys of our taekwondo star Jack Woolley and our golfer Rory McIlroy. Both went to Tokyo with very realistic medal hopes. Jack Woolley is from Jobstown in Tallaght and had come close (aged 17) to Olympic qualification in Rio 2016. He fell agonisingly close. But now aged 22 he was perhaps better prepared for an assault on an Olympic medal. He was one of the first of our Olympians to achieve qualification for Tokyo, qualifying as far back as 2019.And he was a real medal hope in a sport without a strong Irish tradition. Let us consider the personal and family sacrifices necessary for Jack Woolley to make the plane to Tokyo. Sport is often cruel andthat was never more evident than when Jack lost his opening bout. Had he won that first contest, confidence building, he would have really announced himself on a world stage. His disappointment was glaringly evident in his post contest interview:
“I don’t have much of a social life, I have to put everything on hold. It’s training, training, training. Even my coach has put everything on hold for this, and I feel like I’ve let many people down.” Emmet Brennan, our boxer, had an awful draw in the opening round of the light heavyweight division having to face the world’s number two ranked boxer. His tears were real. Credit union loans, two jobs, training, training, training. And he could not progress past the first round. That is an Olympic journey and one that we should cherish and celebrate as much as Harrington and O’Donovan and McCarthy. Woolley and Brennan are supremely gifted athletes. I wrote last week about the need for luck to contribute to an athlete’s journey. Many of our athletes performed above expectations in Tokyo, Brennan and Woolley did not. But through no fault of their own .Contrast that with the Olympic journey of Rory McIlroy. They are hardly comparable. And this is not Rory’s fault. The fault lies with the International Olympic Committee which acquiesced and allowed professional golf to become an Olympic sport. I say, acquiesced, rather than ratified or certified. Because, if there was an overwhelming argument, (there isn’t), to allow golf to become an Olympic sport, then surely the focus should have been on the amateur game. There is a vibrant global amateur golfing fraternity. They embody the spirit of De Courbertin far more closely that the professional golfers of the modern day.
So why are professional golfers allowed to compete? Ditto professional basketball players from the NBA, ditto professional tennis players. What on earth are they doing in Tokyo? The answer, alas, is to appease the major television companies. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The Olympic movement is dominated by its media partners and its sponsors. Media giants want superstars on TV screens in order to build an audience. A large audience attracts advertising. And large advertising revenues multiply the amount that media companies can pay for Olympic rights. And so the bubble grows.
Brace yourself for premiership football stars being compelled to participate in a summer games that they are indifferent to. Because the media rights holders will no doubt demand it. Does professional golf need the Olympics? No! Does the Olympics need professional golf ? No! McIlroy came close to a bronze medal and had he won a medal we would have delighted in his triumph. But within a week of competing at the Olympics Rory McIlroy was back at the day job, competing at the World Golf Championship Fed-Ex St. Jude Invitational. McIlroy finished joint 12th and his Olympic team mate Shane Lowry finished joint 23rd. Winnings for finishing 12th was $193,000 and a 23rd finish was a meagre $110,000.
The Olympic Games was simply a diversion from the PGA Tour for a week. Not the culmination of years of work, not the pinnacle of their sport. Just a different way to spend your weekend.Now back home, Jack Woolley and Emmet Brennan are not simply carrying on. Loans have to be repaid. They are plotting their route to Paris in three years time. Alone and underfunded. So why is the playing field not levelled. Can we not send amateur golfers of Walker Cup quality to the Olympic games? At least we would be sending athletes who had earned their place in Tokyo.Athletes who had made comparable sacrifices to those of Harrington, Brennan and Woolley. Arthur Pierce is a superstar of Tipperary sport.
But his name may be unknown to a large number of our readership. This needs to be corrected. Had golf been deemed worthy of inclusion in earlier Olympiads, then Ireland would have considered sending a giant of the amateur game. Arthur Pierce from Tipperary Town was part of the Walker Cup team that played in Hoylake in 1983. He won the British Seniors Amateur Open in 2007. Arthur Pierce was Tipperary’s golfing great . I would have loved to see him perform on a stage greater than the Walker Cup, perhaps an Olympics. And as an amateur. And I very much doubt if the Zika virus would have dissuaded him from representing his country.I have no idea how much money Rory McIlroy or Shane Lowry earn from commercial endorsements. What I do know is that it is considerable. It is enough to ensure they live comfortably, irrespective of carer earnings.
They get to go to the Olympics. They have earned the right on the basis of their world ranking, They earned their world ranking by playing in events that earned them extraordinary amounts of money. They qualified for the Olympics because they finished in the top ten of major tournaments, and once the Olympics were over, McIlroy and Lowry went back to making millions of dollars. And good luck to them.But professional golfers, please do not call yourself an Olympian. You have not made the sacrifices of Woolley or Brennan or Harrington. Or indeed all the other members of our Olympic team.I used to work in UCC, but only on a Wednesday. Each Wednesday, I would park in Dennehy’s Cross and walk up past the Brookfield Health Science Complex on College Road. It always rains in Cork on Wednesdays by the way.
But on my trudge past Brookfield every Wednesday, I would always keep a look out for medical student Paul O’Donovan. I would see him occasionally making his way in to lectures and I often wondered what kind of a day he had endured before he set out for medical school that morning. How many hours he had already been up for? How many calories had he already burned? How many calories had he already consumed? But here he was, trudging into lectures, just the same as his fellow medical students. One silver medal in Rio later, one gold medal in Tokyo later, he will trudge into Brookfield this October to finish his degree in medicine. And as a nation we hope that his hunger for Paris 2024 will be unsatiated. There isn’t a queue of suitors wanting him to endorse their product for large amounts of money. There is no money in rowing. Now that is an Olympian!