Little time to rest on the long road to Rio as Irish sport put a glorious summer to bed
2012 OLYMPIC GAMES:Far from resting on their laurels, both Irish Olympic and Paralympic athletes will be starting another four-year cycle. And those behind the scenes are already ahead of the game, writes IAN O'RIORDAN
ON THE quiet shaded corner of the South Circular Road, life is stirring again, a slow awakening after a dreamlike summer. To everything, there is a season, turn, turn, turn – and none more turned over now than the London Olympics.
It’s the reason why Billy Walsh was back on the rounds on Tuesday morning, unlocking the doors to the High Performance Unit of the IABA: it’s hard enough to build a legacy, harder still to build on it, but the moment you start to rest on it is the moment it starts to crumble.
Bill Clinton always said it’s just one small step from legacy to lame duck, and he knew what he was talking about. Walsh knows it too: in less than a decade, he has helped build an Irish amateur boxing programme that for two weeks this summer was the envy of the world, or at least anyone at the London Olympics. In the decade before his arrival, Irish amateur boxing had become a lame duck, and there can’t be, won’t be, any going back, not on his watch.
On Monday, London mayor Boris Johnson described their Olympic parade as the “final tear sodden juddering climax” to a summer of sport, and he spoke for the masses. The Paralympics provided such a teasing and joyous encore that for a while it felt like the summer would never end, and now the party’s finally over, everybody has gone home, it’s no longer about the here and now, the there and then, but the what happens next.
Quadrennial is a big word, and some countries, and some sports, look at the four-year Olympic cycle differently to others. It used to be that the closing of an Olympics demanded some slow reflection, now it accentuates it, and if anything it’s less about the reflection than the immediate reaction: he not busy being born is being dying.
“That would always be one of my concerns, than some people might want to kick back, enjoy a bit of the sunshine,” says Gary Keegan, director of the Irish Institute of Sport. “But instead the one thing that has struck me about the coaches and athletes and performance directors coming back from the Olympics, and the Paralympics, is that desire, and hunger, to take it to the next level, and raise the bar again.
“What they all want to know is how we can improve again, and that is very encouraging, that so many of them are in that space. That’s why continuation from London is so important, and of course there will be some change as well. We’ll still be debriefing over the next few weeks, but the Rio process, 2016, is already underway, and it is all about the continuation, that’s already the focus.”
Out in Abbotstown, the Irish Institute of Sport, still operating “under the radar”, as Keegan himself puts it, can take as much credit as anyone for whatever legacy was built in London. Keegan, after all, was the brains behind the fresh legacy of Irish amateur boxing, and bought into the Institute when many others were still dismissing it as a lame duck.
“It’s taken some time,” he admits, “and there has been a lot of water under the bridge. But it’s about gaining trust of athletes as well, forging a way, to support and assist. What we’ve tried to do is operate in the Irish system. Other institutes in other countries might work differently, but we’ve tried to fill the gaps that are here, and I think we’ve set that up reasonably well, around the athletes’ needs.
“And as more athletes have tapped into the system, realised it actually works, that’s given us confidence. Mistakes will be made, but we’re a much closer community now, focused on the right things. And we’re still in our embryonic phase. That’s our first cycle over. But overall I think we’re already far advanced on where we were coming out of Beijing, that systems are in place, but at the same time no one can rest on their laurels.”
Keegan is not making this up: gather the 66 Irish athletes that competed in London, or the 16 medallists from the Paralympics, ask them who has the Irish Institute of Sport to thank, and most of them will put up their hand (and that includes the boxers down on the South Circular Road).
It used to be, too, that the closing of an Olympics, from an Irish perspective, marked the start of the blame games, the finger-pointing exercises, culminating in those bitterly biased Olympic reviews: eight years ago, in Athens, Ireland came home from the Olympics and Paralympics with a combined total of four medals (all in the Paralympics, actually, with three silvers, and one bronze); they came home from London with a combined total of 21, a five-fold increase, delivering more gold medals than any of us dared for.