Rhys McClenaghan struck comedy gold with his cheeky tweet about the cardboard beds in the Athletes’ Village in Tokyo.
But McClenaghan’s bid for Olympic gold is no laughing matter with the Newtownards gymnast having every chance of becoming only the second Northern Ireland individual gold medallist after Lady Mary Peters, who triumphed in the pentathlon in Munich way back in 1972.
McClenaghan road-tested his Tokyo bed on Twitter with what appeared to be part of his Olympic gymnastic routine and was happy to confirm that, although constructed from cardboard and hence recyclable, these beds are made of sturdy stuff.
“In today’s episode of fake news at the Olympic Games, the beds are meant to be anti-sex. They’re made out of cardboard, yes, but apparently they’re meant to break at any sudden movements,” McClenaghan says in the video, while jumping up and down on the bed. “It’s fake, fake news!”
The official Olympics Twitter account thanked McClenaghan for “debunking the myth,” adding that “the sustainable cardboard beds are sturdy”.
The makeshift beds will reportedly be “turned into recycled paper after the Games”.
But away from the jokes and banter, McClenaghan is a serious operator at world level.
He won Commonwealth Games and European Championship gold medals in the pommel horse discipline in 2018, stunning the world of gymnastics by overcoming England’s Olympic champion Max Whitlock on both occasions. The next year, McClenaghan — who turned 22 this week — took bronze at the Worlds.
“I know I can compete against the Olympic champion (Whitlock), that I can post some of the biggest scores in the world, it would be almost silly not to aim for gold every time,” he said.
He was inspired to dedicate his life to the quest for Olympic glory by going to the London 2012 Games as a 13-year-old with his family, attending the breathtaking opening ceremony with his mum Tracy, dad Danny and brother Elliott.
It was in London that Great Britain gymnast Louis Smith took silver, setting the bar high for any aspiring successors.
“I went to the 2012 opening ceremony. That’s up there with my favourite Olympic memories. We couldn’t get any tickets for anything else but myself, mum, dad and my brother went to the opening ceremony which was very cool,” he said.
“Another that comes to mind is Louis Smith winning his medal at London 2012.
“While I was in London, I got to see posters of Louis all over the city and, with the magnitude of the pressure that was on his shoulders, for him to perform one of his best routines ever, it really, really impressed me and resonated with me.”
But McClenaghan has proved himself up to the challenge of emulating — or bettering — Smith so far and feels the 12-month postponement of the Games due to the Covid pandemic could actually be to his advantage, particularly after he used the time to build a shed at his parents’ home to house a pommel horse with posters of Muhammad Ali, Conor McGregor and the Olympic rings on the walls for motivation.
Smith has gone on to carve out a career on the celebrity circuit following his retirement from gymnastics, even winning ITV’s ‘The Masked Dancer’ show.
That’s a pathway McClenaghan doesn’t rule out, but for now the celebrity lifestyle can wait.
McClenaghan — who starts his campaign tomorrow when he will step up his bid for a place in the final on August 1 — is close to his family and, under normal circumstances, they would have been in Tokyo roaring him on. That won’t be the case this time although he will have plenty of encouragement from what he believes is an extremely strong Irish team.
“I think my family are more nervous than me but they are excited too. They are gutted that they can’t come out and watch me but the main thing is I’m going. That’s their thoughts too. We are all grateful it is actually going ahead,” said McClenaghan. “I can’t wait to compete in the Olympics. It won’t be like past events. It will be very individualised and will stand out.”
And the former Regent House pupil is determined to be big in Japan, where he has competed in the past.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to Japan. I love the country. I haven’t been to a place where the culture and the people have affected me so much,” he said. “It’s special to be going as part of such a strong team. I’m not 100% sure but I have a feeling this is one of Ireland’s strongest ever teams.
“Every athlete I talk to speaks about winning a medal. You wouldn’t have heard that very often in past Olympic cycles. It’s an awesome thing that Irish athletes are developing that belief.”
Although McClenaghan is one of Ireland’s brightest medal hopes, he’s far from the team’s biggest name, that accolade going to near neighbour and golfing superstar Rory McIlroy.
“I haven’t met Rory but would love to. I like anyone that puts Northern Ireland on the map and Rory has done that, becoming one of the greatest golfers of all time,” said McClenaghan. “I’m a Newtownards man and Rory is from Holywood, and seeing someone just down the road from me have incredible success in their sport is inspirational.
“It shows if a sportsperson from near my area can achieve great things, I can do something similar and be successful.”
He continued: “In the moment, I feel like my focus will be entirely on the routine.
“That’s a skill you develop throughout the years because if you focus on anyone else’s routine, or anyone watching, your focus goes off the routine and that’s when mistakes are made.
“I’m aware that at the Olympics there will be a lot of eyes on me. My main thought on that is I welcome it because I never really had an Irish gymnast to look at that was in medal contention.
“So I feel like I am in a privileged position to be able to bring that to the younger generation and for them to see that a Northern Irish gymnast or Irish gymnast can be at an Olympics and be in contention. That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.
“That’s part of inspiring the younger generation and I’m being given an amazing opportunity to do that at the Olympics.
“I’m going there for myself and my family and everyone who has supported me along the way, but I’m also doing it for that younger generation that need inspiration and belief to spark their dreams and surpass my achievements after I’m out of the sport.
“My goal is that I won’t fail one routine that I perform in training and I can go in with confidence knowing I can perform the routine to the best of my ability.”
Northern Ireland sporting immortality beckons.