Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy entertain off the water after dominating on it

Cork duo defend their European Championship title in the lightweight double sculls

One of these days Paul O’Donovan might let his guard down and slip in something serious and maybe then we will know whether Fintan McCarthy is laughing with him or at him.

All that is certain for now is the unquestionably best lightweight rowing duo in the world, arguably of all time, are as mightily entertaining off the water as they are dominating on it.

They have made the winning of Olympic, World and European gold medals look like fun and are always sure to poke fun at it afterwards.

It doesn’t take away from the steely hardiness which has helped turn O’Donovan in particular into one of the most decorated people in Irish sport; still it’s impossible not to be drawn into their dreamy and often self-deprecating style of reaction.


In defending their European title here at the old Munich Olympic regatta venue in the northern outskirts of the city, adding another gold medal to their World and Olympic titles, they seemingly toyed with the other five boats, allowing a young Swiss crew to take an early lead, while the Italians initially gave chase.

They may call it the lightweight double sculls, only O’Donovan and McCarthy are in very much in a class of their own, the Skibbereen duo again winning here with a truly remarkable display of power and speed in the last quarter of the race – utterly unstoppable, just like they were in Tokyo a year ago.

That reaction afterwards began with O’Donovan saying straight-faced that he’d shouldered the Italian crew before they got on the water to let them know who was boss here.

“And then Fintan delivered the killer blow out on the course,” he said, smiling to himself, his now pure shaman appearance something to behold.

It’s a second successive European gold for McCarthy too, to sit alongside his Olympic and World titles, and at age 25, three years younger than O’Donovan, he’s still only coming into his prime.

At the halfway 1,000-metre mark O’Donovan and McCarthy moved into second, still utterly unbothered by the Swiss crew who were clearly giving their all.

Only with 500m remaining did the Irish hit the front, a half-boat length clear swiftly becoming a full boat-length and they won by 3.68 seconds, the Italian pair Pietro Ruta and Stefano Oppo coming through to take second, the Swiss crew Jan Schaeuble and 21 year-old Raphael Ireland hanging on for third, almost falling out of the boat at the finish such was their effort.

O’Donovan now has Olympic gold and Olympic silver, four World Championship titles, now three European Championship gold and two silver, and not forgetting the Henley regatta he won with McCarthy not long after Tokyo, a prize he jested was possibly the bigger deal anyway.

“I don’t think you’re ever comfortable, really, in a race like that,” said O’Donovan.

“You’re on the edge, hanging on. We were still working hard. Maybe it looked like we gave a big dig at the end, but we were digging and maintaining speed and the others were falling off a bit but Fintan has been going really well all year. He stepped up again this year and I could feel that behind me, he was driving things along and it made a big difference.

“I’ve not done as much training as in years gone by, I’ve not done a huge amount of formal testing either but some of the training pace stuff we’ve done together has been pretty good.”

McCarthy wasn’t bothered by the fast start of the Swiss either: “I think we just kept a consistent pace the whole way through to the end which I guess the other crews didn’t. We pushed it on in the last 500m. I’ve had a good year. It worked very well. I pushed on a bit and Paul is obviously phenomenal, and we’re getting better individually and then that makes the double better.”

There was a notable line in the Tokyo Olympic rowing review which stated the high-performance team were disappointed by the two-medal haul at those Games, the lightweight double gold and bronze in the women’s four, that they wanted more.

They likely wanted more than two medals won here too, O’Donovan and McCarthy’s gold on Sunday following Saturday’s silver medal won by the Irish women’s four crew of Eimear Lambe, Aifric Keogh, Tara Hanlon and Natalie Long.

For Lambe and Keogh the European silver also added to their Olympic bronze won in Tokyo last summer, although there were certainly medal chances left behind in Munich too, with four fourth-place finishes.

Closest of all came the women’s lightweight double sculls on Sunday, where Lydia Heaphy and Margaret Cremen held a bronze medal-winning position until the last 200m.

Victory there went to the British pair of Imogen Grant and Emily Craig, who just missed out on an Olympic medal in Tokyo, with Claire Bové and Laura Tarantola of France holding on for silver before reigning Olympic champions of Italy snatching the bronze ahead of Ireland. They were just .64 of a second short.

Earlier in the women’s single sculls A final, Aoife Casey also finished fourth, just under two seconds away from third, Ionela Cozmiuc from Romania winning gold.

There was also a fourth-place finish in Para mixed double sculls final for Steven McGovern and Katie O’Brien, 20 seconds down on the emotional winners from Ukraine.

Also on Saturday, the women’s pair of Emily Hegarty and Fiona Murtagh finished fourth in their final, both those rowers also part of the fours in Tokyo last summer.

From here the rowing show moves on the Racice in the Czech Republic for the World Championships, set for September 18th-25th, only O’Donovan isn’t sure yet if his medical studies at UCC will allow him to compete. Or was he serious about that?

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics