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'Mum thinks I should write a book': How Olympic delay is the latest turn in Mark Downey's long road to Tokyo

 

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Journey to the Games: Mark Downey hasn't had it all his own way

Journey to the Games: Mark Downey hasn't had it all his own way

Journey to the Games: Mark Downey hasn't had it all his own way

Can anyone ever expect the road to the Olympic Games to run smooth?

Athletes could certainly be forgiven for imagining it might be a little more straight forward than Mark Downey's quest to follow in his father's footsteps.

The 23-year-old will have plenty of time to hear all about dad Seamus' exploits at the 1984 Games when, in another world, he could have been busy preparing for the biggest summer of his life.

The family are all cooped up in their house outside Dromore, obeying 'stay at home' protocols to see out the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's another chapter to the story," he says of the Olympics' postponement until 2021. "My mum thinks I could write a book about my Olympic qualifying journey so this is another part of it.

"Dad keeps saying it was different for him - he just got a call to say he was going and got himself to Dublin Airport and that was it."

Simpler times indeed.

Downey, along with his Team Ireland partner Felix English, booked a place at the Games at the start of the month before the 'gradual realisation' set in that the timeline to Tokyo was about to get a lot longer.

It had already been difficult enough.

Since the Madison was formally announced as an Olympic discipline for the 2020 (or rather 2021) Games, returning for the first time since 2008, it's been a long and winding road.

Downey and English leapt out of the traps with World Cup gold and silver medals in 2017, reaching fifth in the rankings. The Dromore man would even end that year ranked top in the individual points race.

Mark Downey

 

However, 2018 was to bring difficulties and disappointments, few more than the Commonwealth Games.

A crash led to Downey being denied a place in the points final, despite his disagreement with the ruling that the 'racing incident' didn't warrant a pass into the decider. A few days later, and the frustration continued as a momentous effort in the road race was only enough to be denied bronze by inches.

Since then, it's been all about sealing a spot at the Olympics.

A bronze medal in the points race at last year's World Championship kickstarted his form and the bigger goal was to follow a year later.

At the 2020 Worlds, Downey and English required a big effort to pip Hong Kong to the final Olympic place.

"Our first year was a bit of a nightmare. We changed coaches and got a new programme which was all a lot to adapt to," he explained.

"After that, I was nearly just moving on and looking to Paris in 2024 in terms of trying to go to the Olympics.

"Things just weren't going well and I was even beginning to wonder if I was at the level that you need but then we just made so much progress.

"It was crazy. We qualified for the Worlds via our very last race to get our last chance to go to the Olympics and then we made it through in the final race again. We certainly left it late.

"Even the coaches didn't know how we did it."

While he admits it's just as big a mystery whether or not he'll have another race to look forward to in 2020, Downey is at least glad to be back in Dromore.

His amateur road racing team in France, whom he joined having all but conceded any hope of an Olympic place, had been demanding he fly off to compete with the coronavirus pandemic progressing through the continent.

"Mum was in a bit of a panic," he admits.

"They wanted me to go back over for some big races and were quite insistent but I spoke to the doctor here and he had advised me to stay here. Within 24 hours, the races in France were cancelled so it was a relief that I hadn't gone over and that I'm still here."

For now, it's all about making the most of close quarters with dad, mum Marget and sisters Olivia and Pauline, with his other siblings Catherine and Sean out of the family home.

"We all get on well but we'll see how long that lasts," he smiled.

"Olivia's an HE teacher and she's already been teaching me some tricks. Just before you called we were making some chilli con carne and she was showing me some ways to make it tasty.

"I'm always saying I should do a bit of work on my languages too. I know a bit of French and Spanish but I really should make some effort. It's a typical lazy attitude isn't it? We just fall back on everybody else being so good at English.

"For training, I'll be back to riding around the country roads near our house and it'll be nice to do that and feel normal for three or four hours a day. Then it'll be home and under the rock again."

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Mark Downey (right) with dad Séamus and brother Sean.

Mark Downey (right) with dad Séamus and brother Sean.

Mark Downey (right) with dad Séamus and brother Sean.

 

For what it's worth, Downey fully supports the decision to postpone the Games.

That's for all the obvious reasons as well as an admirable concern for the Olympic principles of fairness and equality, with his own training situation much more favourable than some others as the western world enters various stages of lockdown.

"It's another year in which to get stronger so that's the way I'm looking at it," he said.

"It does give me something to focus on and look forward to after all this. It will all be about preparing now. I can set a really clear plan now which is exciting.

"Everyone says you really need two Olympics - one to get used to it and then a second to really target a good finish. To qualify this young is great and means I have the next few years to look forward to."

As an amateur, Downey relies on government support to follow his Olympic dream with Team Ireland.

While that's a minor concern should funds be understandably directed elsewhere during the pandemic, it's well down the list of priorities.

"As long as me and my family are healthy then that's worth more than a fortune isn't it?"

A life in perspective and an Olympic flame burning on the horizon - the light at the end of the tunnel.

Belfast Telegraph