Dublin teen carries Olympic torch ahead of opening ceremony

Mark O’Brien is the only Irish person taking part in the relay to bring the torch to Rio

Dublin teenager Mark O'Brien last night became the only Irish person to take part in the relay bringing the Olympic torch to Rio de Janeiro for the opening ceremony of the Summer Games next Friday.

It was the realisation of a personal dream for the 13-year old, who used the idea of eventually carrying the iconic flame to motivate himself when battling a life-threatening illness.

Speaking to The Irish Times before his run in the city of Volta Redonda, just 130 kilometres from Rio, an ecstatic Mark said: "I'm just really excited and happy because the idea of running with the torch really helped me to get better."

Among the cheering local crowd were his parents Joan and Frank and his 12-year old sister Isabel, herself a promising runner with several national medals already, in what is a self-confessed athletics-mad family.


“It was an amazing atmosphere and it was so wonderful to see him with the flame, running tall and his eyes shining,” said his mother Joan afterwards.

Mark first grabbed hold of the idea of taking part in the relay in 2013 at a time when his illness left this keen young runner too weak to walk.

It was then that Nigel Cowman, one of the family's many supporters during Mark's illness from Blackrock Athletic Club in Co Dublin where the family runs, gave him one of the torches that had been used in the relay of the London Olympics in 2012.

“We all told him then that when you are big and strong you will be able to carry the torch yourself,” his mother remembers. “And the idea stuck in his head and he decided he was going to do it.”

It was an undiagnosed congenital abnormality of his digestive system left Mark too weak to walk by the time he was ten. It was only in August of 2014 when he collapsed during a family holiday in Majorca that a CT scan revealed a knot in his abdomen caused by the abnormality as the problem.

Emergency surgery saved his life but the illness had left his immune system deeply compromised meaning a long road to recovery involving regular injections, rigorous diets and exercise, all of it endured as necessary for realising his dream of carrying the torch.

As he began to recover his strength Mark started sending letters to organisations he hoped might help him get a slot on the relay, including to the Brazilian embassy in Dublin. After making little headway he finally sent a letter to Rio and the Games’ organising committee.

This one prompted a reply and there followed an invitation to join around 12,000 others taking part in the relay from former volleyball player Carlos Arthur Nuzman, the current head of Brazil's Olympic Committee and in charge of organising this year's Games.

The extent to which Mark’s personal story, and passion for the Olympics, has touched organisers was clear when Nuzman took time out from overseeing hectic final preparations ahead of the opening ceremony to meet with him and his sister in Rio earlier this week.

Mark and his family will leave Brazil before the Games start but they have already been soaking up the atmosphere, watching Mongolia's boxers do their morning sparring at their hotel and will visit the Olympic Village before leaving Rio.

Once the sport starts they will all be watching the drama unfold on television but Mark is already thinking beyond the Olympics. “My next goal is to get back to competitive running,” he says.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America