Olympic TV View: In the wee small hours hope and despair come in waves

From the pool to the pitch in Tokyo the emotions were real and raw

There are at least 86 songs that contain the lyrics “three o’clock in the morning” or an abbreviated version of the time check, recorded by such music luminaries as the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Thin Lizzy and Bob Marley and the Wailers among others.

Based on a quick scan it seems that 3.0am is precisely when folk are most susceptible to feeling the absence of a partner and the accompanying sense of regret or loss; except in the case of the late Bob Marley, as he sang about trying to convince the police at a roadblock that he had ‘no herb on him’.

That historical sense of angst or foreboding musically that nothing positive happens about 3.0am would prove ominously prescient from an Irish perspective as things unfolded in the early hours of Tuesday morning at the Tokyo Olympics.

"It's 3.17am please let me into your eyes," Melissa Etheridge once proclaimed, lyrics with which those that tuned in at precisely that moment to watch Ireland's Mona McSharry would identify, as the 20-year-old Sligo native stood on her block for the start of the Olympic final of the 100 metres breaststroke, the first to do so since Michelle Smith 25 years ago.


RTÉ's Jacqui Hurley and David Gillick sensibly chose to focus on McSharry's achievement in reaching the final rather than projecting on the outcome. Starting in lane eight, any number below that in terms of a finishing position, would be a bonus. Gillick explained: "She's nothing to lose, it's not where she places; she has arrived at this level. The shackles are off, she has nothing to lose, just give it [her] best shot."

The national broadcaster had set up a live camera link to the McSharry family sitting room in Grange where dad Aidan, mum Viola, brother Mouric and younger sister Luca, watched in hope and with justifiable pride.

Watching a number of finals in the build-up to McSharry’s race was rendered a more pleasurable experience by the presence poolside of commentary team John Kenny and former Olympian Nick O’Hare, whose passion for the sport, humour and technical expertise made it easy to enjoy for the casual supporter; that’s not easy at any time never mind in the middle of the night.

Kenny offered context and credit in equal measure when the Irish swimmer’s time came to race. He ventured: “Now Sligo woman Mona McSharry has become the first Irish swimmer since 1996 to make an Olympic swimming final.

"Good morning to her family in Grange in Sligo, to the Marlin swimming club where she swam her formative years in Ballyshannon, to Grace Meade her coach, to Tennessee university where she now swims, to the Swim Ireland academy in the High Performance Centre in Dublin, to Jon Rudd, to Ben Higson to everyone that has supported Irish swimming, this is a momentous day."

O’Hare added: “It’s a phenomenal performance by Mona. No matter what she does it doesn’t matter.” And it didn’t. The numbers, second off the blocks, eighth to the turn and then the finish and 0.7 seconds outside the Irish record didn’t distort the focus of the big picture. She’ll always have Paris (2024) and first the 200 metres here in Tokyo too.

McSharry brought a natural grace and charm to her post-race debrief, upbeat and positive, a tone that couldn’t have been further removed from the Ireland men’s Sevens team. There was no consolation despite a 12-7 victory over Kenya in their final pool match. They needed to win by eight to advance to the quarter-finals but conceded a late converted try.

What will torment the squad is the nature of the defeat, one littered with basic errors, simple catch and pass in several instances and completely unrepresentative of the quality they have shown both in the World Series and also qualifying for the Olympics.

Listening to the post-game interviews with Harry McNulty and captain Billy Dardis there was a raw edge to the disappointment. McNulty admitted, speaking to RTÉ: "It's really difficult to understand. I've been thinking about it for the last 24 hours. We've played in stadiums like this, been in the World Series in big cities, living in hotels with 16 other teams, sharing dining halls, buses, training facilities, ice baths – it's not like any of this is new to us.

“Just because you stick Olympic rings everywhere doesn’t change it in terms of our mentality or how we’re able to play. Playing to the best of your abilities, you can’t have any regrets with that. But looking back on those three games, you’re really questioning why we didn’t play to the best of our abilities.” They did beat South Korea 31-0 and will face Kenya again in a battle for ninth and 10th place.

For those who had answered the sporting reveille, Belfast boxer Aidan Walsh's performance in a unanimous 5-0 win over Cameroon's Albert Mengue Ayissi was the perfect antidote to the earlier disappointment and a belated reward for those who left the comfort of the pit.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer