Irish Olympians asking not what their country can do for them

Athletes keep their eye on the prize as they eschew the negativity that drags others down

The world is very different now. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to the Tokyo Olympics will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so ask not what your country can do for you...

God knows how many times those words have been dumbed down and bastardised like this in the now 60 years since John F Kennedy first delivered them at his inauguration on a bitterly cold, snow-laden morning in January 1961.

At age 43, the second youngest ever elected, and the first Catholic, Kennedy himself had no clue either how many times their meaning would be re-examined after his killing some 1,000 days later.

Ted Sorensen, who collaborated with Kennedy on all his major speeches over the previous eight years, reckoned it wasn't even his finest, or indeed most important: Kennedy's American University commencement address, in June 1963, which for the first time called for a re-examination of the Cold War, arguably proved more stirring in meaning and purpose.

His televised address in October 1962, which first revealed to the world the secret presence of Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, certainly proved more critical, although some people will tell you that the most profound Kennedy speech of all was delivered not by John, but his younger brother Ted, at the funeral of his other brother Bobby, also killed by gunshot in June 1968.

There, the youngest Kennedy brother trailed off emotionally by quoting one of Bobby's favourite lines: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not" – even if knowing full well those words had been first written by George Bernard Shaw, nearly half a century earlier.

Meanwhile one full year after their official postponement, on March 24th of 2020, the world is thinking very differently about the now 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

On Thursday, the Olympic Torch Relay got underway at the second attempt in Fukushima, beginning the 121-day journey through 859 locations, culminating in the opening ceremony at the National Stadium on July 23rd, which almost certainly won't allow all the competitors to march in behind their national flag.

In tune with this current mood and expectation, there was very little fanfare, a very small crowd, everyone dressed up against Covid-19 and some thinking out loud not would this day ever come, but should it have.

With still spiralling costs due to that postponement, the International Olympic Committee still determined to maximise their TV rights even if it's all played out in half-empty stadiums, there probably hasn't been so much negativity around the Games since, well, take your pick.

The news last week that no overseas spectators will be allowed anywhere near any of the Olympic venues – and same for the Paralympics, from August 25th to September 5th – may or may not have cheered up the Tokyo residents, given their enduring concern around Covid-19.

The torch relay, to feature 10,000 runners through Japan’s 47 prefectures, is in part designed to show some national unity. Instead, one abiding number is from earlier this year, when a poll by public broadcaster NHK showed 77 per cent of those surveyed wanted the Olympics either cancelled or postponed further.

Most expensive

Other numbers keep rising, the one-year postponement adding at least $15 billion to the $25 billion in costs, already the most expensive in Olympic history, and when all the testing and restriction of movement is factored in it could add up to one very expensive folly.

Only talk and listen to any of the Irish Olympians, those either qualified or on the cusp of it, and without a hint of complaint or a word of regret they beat on, in some cases boats against the current, in part with either the hope or belief they can at least lighten up the country a little more come the summer. Pity it is not a little more infectious.

After a week on the waters off Lanzarote, the young Dublin pair of Robert Dickson and Sean Waddilove became the latest to book their Tokyo place on Friday, with a race to spare, at their 49er-class sailing qualifier.

It brings to 56 the number of Irish qualifiers for Tokyo, across 12 sports, with the potential for more, and while most of the country may be drowning in the negativity around the lockdown, each of them brings their own uplifting a tale.

Like Shane Ryan, Ireland's best swimmer, who on Thursday talked about spending three months of the first lockdown waking up in the near solitary confinement of his small house on the National Sports Campus at Abbotstown, feeling like his weight had ballooned in near direct proportion to his lightning of heart and spirit: did he want to be the best swimmer he could be, not just for himself but for his country, build on the four international medals he'd won already, including a first ever for Ireland in a World Championship event, or, as he deftly put it himself, be just another "leaf floating down the river".

Ryan stopped complaining to himself, got on with in, and after breaking six Irish records at the International Swimming League in Budapest last November, is now selected for the 100m backstroke for Tokyo, a place in the final certainly within reach of the 27-year-old, six years after leaving the family home in Havertown in the suburbs of west Philadelphia, his Irish parents the proudest fans of him now representing his adopted country.

Others are fronting up the cost of representing their country in another way: the last thing Nadia Power expected in her final quest to qualify for Tokyo was being so grateful for a Dublin lab to offer free testing for a highly contagious virus that's already left her heavily out of pocket.

Despite a series of breakthrough runs throughout the indoor season, twice breaking the Irish 800 metres record, Power still hasn’t received any financial assistance from Athletics Ireland, instead eating into around €3,000 of either savings or borrowings. She too is getting on with it, knowing it sounds cheap for any athlete to be complaining given the national mood.

A novelty

Earlier this month Jack Woolley was announced as only the second formally selected Irish athlete for Tokyo, a first on other fronts: in the countdown to the Rio 2016, Woolley was last seen crying his eyes out on national television, a teenager left broken-hearted after falling just short of becoming the country's first ever representative in taekwondo.

Four years later, Woolley secured his qualification for Tokyo with ample time to spare, before time and everything else was put on hold. Now, 21 has turned 22, and any fear the delay has dented his Olympic aspirations is promptly discarded as his opposition so often are. He never once lost sight of his goal, not just of competing but fighting for gold, in a sport where the skinny Irish kid is no longer just a novelty but a real threat.

There are plenty more boxers, rowers, gymnasts and athletes lining up to come, and what may be different or the same about Tokyo is that successful Olympians are somehow programmed differently, and instead of being lost in the negativity that might drag others down, are still asking not what their country can do for them.