Belfast Telegraph

Was all the agony and ecstasy for our Olympians in Rio really worth it?

While GB brings home a record 67 medals, our athletes fail to shine in Rio

By Malachi O'Doherty

Suddenly, it looks like Rory McIlroy made a judicious call in having nothing to do with the Olympics this year.

Some thought him a bit of a wimp in opting not to expose himself to the zika virus and thereby jeopardising his prospects of having healthy children — not a risk anyone should take lightly, whatever the odds.

There were suggestions that he had other motives; that he had made the calculation that the Olympics isn’t really where it’s at when you are trying to distinguish yourself as an international sports superstar.

And I was wondering that myself, when I saw Andy Murray slugging it out for his second Olympic gold medal. Didn’t we already know that the man had it in him — that he is an amazing player?

Better to leave the Olympics to the second league, the eager amateurs, who invest all their energies and appreciate the rewards. Like the English women’s hockey team. Then they might surprise you by being the first league after all.

The hockey players did more than acquit themselves like champions; they redeemed the honour of a nation that can’t put together a world-beating football team and hasn’t in half-a-century.

That’s what the Olympics is for: fostering an alternative to the big-monied, overpaid lads who, the rest of the time, are taken to represent the country’s best. That’s what is so glorious about it; the chance to prove that those who love their sport and aren’t just in it for the money can be better than the over-fed and over-sexed in whom we usually invest our hopes.

And you could see how much they loved that victory; how much they got off on winning, expressing such a surfeit of emotion that their wee bodies seemed hardly able to contain it.

That was rapture we saw when they joined hands and swept across the pitch. They were as high as the Dutch were low, stricken. For it mattered equally to both of them.

That wasn’t like looking once again at the dour face of Wayne Rooney taking in the fact that nothing has changed since the last time they lost.

In short, there was some point to their being there, fighting to prove themselves.

But what did Andy Murray prove, that he hadn’t proven before?

Here in Northern Ireland, we have some of the best sportspeople in the world in Carl Frampton and Rory McIlroy. We already know that. We didn’t need them to be there. Yet, we sent other passionate competitors out to Rio in a range of sports. And what have we to show for it?

Those like Paddy Barnes, who couldn’t pull it off on the day, came back with no more or less than Michael Conlan, who boxed his heart out and was ruled against by a referee who was then stood down.

It’s a pity that this cack-handed judgment couldn’t have been stood down instead, the ref’s bad work undone and a decent boxer given the chance to fight on for the prize he had his sights on and had the power and skill to win.

And, in a glorious irony, the boxer that he should have been judged to have beaten had to withdraw because he had taken such a beating. Craggy Island could manage its affairs better than that.

You see something at the Olympics that you do not see in other sporting tournaments. You see a level of effusive emotion that attests to how much winning and losing mean to the contestants. A team that wins the All Ireland, or even the World Cup, will do its lap of honour, but will not evince the sheer delirium of the winners in Rio.

And a losing side will never look as utterly disconsolate as Michael Conlan did, knowing that he had been robbed.

And the question arises: if it matters so much to them, should it not matter a bit more to us? Should we not be putting in the resources that will make our contestants winners?

There is a cruel irony in the naming of the British squad as Team GB. It ignores Northern Ireland.

In 2012, the-then Prime Minister, David Cameron, actually came over here to assuage the hurt feelings of those who felt that we had been ignored, counted as if we were not really part of the squad at all, an appendage, a clatter of hangers-on, who were not expected to win anything anyway.

And that’s how it is. For, if Cameron’s assurances in 2012 had meant anything, then the insult would not have been repeated.

Team GB — that is Great Britain — pulled out the stops, poured huge resources into winning medals. And it shows in the results.

Twenty years ago in Atlanta, Britain was placed 26th on the medals table. In Rio, Team GB came second.

What made the difference? Money. Money spent over there, that is.

And what then accounts for Northern Ireland doing so badly, winning no medals at all? Money, surely?

And resources. At last, we have an Olympic-size swimming pool, but we have no velodrome for our cyclists to train on.

The big expenditure in sport has gone on rowing, cycling and athletics, but you would need to travel to GB to get the benefit of it. You would have to leave Northern Ireland.

That’s what is meant by Northern Ireland not being included in the squad’s title. We don’t belong there, because we don’t pay our way, don’t pull our weight and because the best thing any competitor can do to build up a campaign for a medal is to leave here, to go to GB to be properly part of Team GB.

Our neighbour to the south didn’t do much better — two silver medals, one in rowing and one in sailing.

Well, they were robbed in the boxing. Conlan should have gone on. That’s agreed on pretty widely.

And they have produced a media phenomenon in the untutored O’Donovan brothers, who charmed the world with their casual inarticulacy. But perhaps that is not a credit to the country after all.

The final placings in the ticket-touting stakes are undecided as yet, though the country has two suspects sharing a cell. Both have had their heads shaved, which seems a little inconsiderate, with nothing yet proven against them.

But the outstanding question remains: was taking part in this global sporting challenge, ultimately, much more than an embarrassment for Ireland, north and south?

Yes, there were heartening moments — and lovely horses, too.

But, surely, Michael Conlan isn’t the only one asking if all the effort was worth it?

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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