Belfast Telegraph

How Stephen will spearhead Olympic mission of a lifetime

By Laure James

Every waking thought is surrendered to it. It's a festival for casual partakers and an obsession for its greatest fans, yet for Stephen Martin, the Olympic Games have consumed him for much of his life. Now, as Rio approaches, there's no time, even briefly, to acknowledge anything else.

"It's 24 hours a day," says Martin, the Olympic Council of Ireland chief executive and deputy chef de mission for Team Ireland at this summer's Games. Yet he says so unapologetically, proud of the administration's unrelenting commitment to giving athletes and coaches the best possible chance of bringing home gold.

He says so with a soft, polished North Down accent, modestly authoritative.

"Our planning started four years ago, but at the moment it's impossible to think of anything else.

"I leave for Brazil on July 22, and arrive early on the morning of the 23rd, when we'll meet with the local organising committee, formally enter the team - which involves physically entering all our athletes' names and details into a database - collect keys for our apartment blocks and set up home for each of our 76 athletes, competing in 13 sports.

"I know what to expect, but I suppose that's when it starts to become quite real for the athletes.

"The last few weeks have been based on arranging Olympic kit and clothing, announcing new members of the team, finalising training camp arrangements, flights and fielding so many more media requests than we get at any other time.

"I am constantly making notes to myself, remembering things, going over mental checklists in the car or in the gym. It's not just about taking a team to the Olympics, which is probably what people think. We are involved in every single aspect.

"There are around 65 science and medical people, we have seminars and team-leader training sessions and coaches meeting from across sports to share knowledge. We feel we're very well-prepared."

That includes updating team members on developments regarding the well documented Zika virus.

"All athletes and performance support personnel have been informed of our guidelines and our medical team is available to discuss any concerns," he asserts

Martin knows what being 'well-prepared' must feel like. He competed three times at the Summer Olympics as a field hockey player and was a member of Great Britain's gold medal-winning squad at the 1998 games in Seoul, having claimed bronze in Los Angeles four years previous.

Martin (57) is known as 'Sam', owing to his initials and middle name (Alexander), yet these are not the only featured initials he possesses. He was presented with an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster and awarded an MBE for services to hockey, in 1993.

While the recognition of his achievements are admirable, his competition days will never be replaced.

"Nothing beats competing," he underlines, without hesitation. "After I stopped competing, I remember going to my first Games as... well, on the dark side, as I put it. I was with Great Britain and wondered how I would cope as an administrator, not an athlete. I took a deep breath and just decided to get on with it. Being a double Olympic medallist is an advantage when it comes to relating with athletes, and I suppose you can always remind people of that background, if you ever need to use that card, but I thankfully I didn't ever really have to.

"I was more concerned about how I would feel, having to leave competition behind.

"You want to be the best you can in any role, if you're involved with the Olympics. So as an administrator, you want the best possible planning and management.

"No matter whether you're in coaching, science and medical, planning, we all take responsibility for failures. If we do well, we should all take credit, if we don't, we all look at what can be improved."

Team Ireland's marketeers will be confident of drawing in thousands more supporters, after golf's inclusion in the modern games.

After 112 years, one of Ireland's most loved sports will once again, be an Olympic one. Rory McIlroy revealed he is unlikely to watch golf at Rio, and will be focusing on "events like track and field, swimming, diving; the stuff that matters", adding his decision to swerve participation was not a difficult one.

Martin, however, sees it as a key opportunity for golf fans to share an interest in the Olympics with millions of others.

"I think golf could do for the Games, what tennis did in 1984, and '88. I remember Steffi Graf and other big names fully embracing it, and golf has the power to emulate that.

"Golf could benefit, too, from interest the Olympics generate, particularly in this economic climate, where people are dropping golf club memberships. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has introduced new events into Winter games, and in cricket you have Twenty 20, and limited overs, for instance, so they're all trying to develop sports and move them on so as not to become stale.

"Rugby sevens will have a huge impact in the countries taking it up, as they may have the resources for sevens, but were never able to accommodate full-scale, for teams of 15 players. Spain, for example, have qualified in the men's and women's, but are not a country known for 15s rugby.

"People have to think outside the box and golf has opened new doors. Cavan's Leona Maguire, for instance, has a real opportunity to push her name out there now."

Martin bases himself in Malahide and returns to native Bangor at the weekends, but he says life on the road has in fact, calmed down.

Previously, he commuted to the IOC to play a key role in the Sydney, Athens and London Olympics, including helping the London committee to pitch their successful bid.

"There's no such thing as 9-5 in our family, and there never has been in my career," he smiles.

"I am fortunate to have such a supportive wife, Dorothy, and our children are carving their own paths. We've always encouraged them to travel, which they have done. Our son Patrick has started his first job in the City, and our daughter Hannah is studying communication, advertising and marketing, and is currently in placement with a PR agency in the south, so is staying with me in Malahide for the time being, which I'm enjoying.

"Going to the gym helps me to unwind, I have to try and get along five times a week. I'm not able to run as frequently as I used to, so I try and run once a week, and top that up with a couple of spin classes.

"My kids will tell you, I'm useless with band names or track titles, but I like the music they have in spin, and anything I've said I like, they seem to agree with, so that's usually a good sign of modern taste!"

Interestingly, and encouragingly, he also believes Northern Ireland could produce a gold medallist this summer, inaugurating a new member into the exclusive club Martin is proud to belong to.

Despite a glorious history of punching above our weight on the sporting canvas, this province has produced just four Olympic gold medallists in Dame Mary Peters, pentathlon at Munich 1972; Martin and his GB hockey team-mate Jimmy Kirkwood in 88 and the one even quiz buffs struggle with, Robin Dixon, now Lord Glentoran, in the 1964 Winter Olympics bobsleigh at Innsbruck.

More recently, Paralymics has provided gold medal success for skier Kelly Gallagher and athletes Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop.

Martin believes those ranks could be expanded, reasoning: "This year we have had some athletes producing consistently good results, such as Michael Conlan. As a World champion boxer, he must be in a strong position, while Paddy Barnes is a double Olympic medallist.

"Peter and Richard Chambers returned from London with medals in rowing. I think we could see the first male individual gold medal coming home for a very, very long time."

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