Paul O’Donovan mixing it with the heavyweights at European Rowing Championships

The 30-year-old Skibbereen rower remains focused on the lightweight doubles for Paris

In the regatta preview on the European Rowing Championships website the men’s single sculls event comes with a telling reminder: “And don’t forget Ireland’s Paul O’Donovan.”

Indeed it’s telling on several fronts, the first time O’Donovan has raced at these championships not as a lightweight, but with the so-called heavyweights, and a sign of things to come. O’Donovan, who turned 30 last Friday, has already made that point clear.

For the past eight years now he’s been the best lightweight rower in the world, winning 13 championship medals, including 10 gold, between the single and double sculls. But with the lightweight crews (with a maximum individual weight of 72.5kg) no longer part of the Olympic programme after this summer’s Paris Games, he’s already looking towards the heavyweights.

These European Championships, starting on Thursday in Szeged in Hungary, don’t offer the chance for any further Irish crews to secure Paris qualification. That chance is only for countries which so far have zero or one boat qualified for Paris, with Ireland having already qualified six boats. The last chance to qualify further Irish boats will come at the Lucerne regatta on May 19th-21st.


O’Donovan was originally entered in both the men’s single sculls and the lightweight doubles in Szeged, along with fellow Skibbereen rower Fintan McCarthy, but after failing to sufficiently recover full fitness after a recent illness, McCarthy has withdrawn.

For O’Donovan then it’s essentially about race practice, but he’ll get a good idea of where he currently stands in the singles. The top-quality field includes reigning world champion Oliver Zeidler from Germany, Greece’s Olympic champion Stefanos Ntouskos, and Tokyo bronze medallist Damir Martin from Croatia.

It doesn’t take any of his focus away from the lightweight doubles in Paris either, where O’Donovan will look to become the first Irish athlete in any sport to win a medal in three successive Olympics, after his silver in Rio (with older brother Gary), and gold in Tokyo (with McCarthy). Fellow Cork doctor Pat O’Callaghan won two, gold in the hammer in 1928 and 1932, before boxer Paddy Barnes won successive bronze in 2008 and in 2012.

In an interview with this newspaper last November O’Donovan spoke about looking beyond the lightweight crews already, saying: “Even if they didn’t get rid of the lightweight [after Paris], I was thinking of doing the heavyweight anyway, for a change.”

Already a six-time world champion, O’Donovan missed last year’s European Championships in Slovenia as he completed his medical studies, McCarthy finishing sixth in the lightweight doubles final with Hugh Moore as his partner. O’Donovan and McCarthy did win European gold in 2022.

A total of 26 nations have entered crews in Szeged, McCarthy’s withdrawal meaning only five Irish crews will race: O’Donovan in the men’s single; the women’s double of Alison Bergin (Fermoy) and Zoe Hyde (Tralee); Margaret Cremen (UCC) in the lightweight women’s single; and Jake McCarthy, twin brother of Fintan, in the lightweight men’s single. Steven McGowan will also race the para men’s singles, after already qualifying in the PR2 mixed double sculls for the Paris Paralympics.

Ireland qualified the six boats for Paris at the World Championships in Belgrade last September: the men’s and women’s pair, men’s and women’s double sculls, and men’s and women’s lightweight double sculls.

This year, Rowing Ireland again topped the overall high-performance investment from Sport Ireland with €1,093,334 for 2024 (€3.9 million for the Paris Olympic cycle) ahead of Paralympics Ireland (€1 million/€3.7 million), the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (€965,000/€3.5 million) and Athletics Ireland (€841,666/€3.365 million).

Rowing Ireland also had 16 athletes on this year’s top-tier funding of €40,000 each, compared to four in boxing and three in athletics, bringing their total of international carding scheme to €863,000.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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