Family pride and sibling rivalry good for Irish Olympic effort

Following the footsteps of a parent or a successful brother/sister inspires many of our elite athletes

Mark Downey: will compete  in his  first Olympics in Tokyo, pairing with Felix English in the Madison. His  father Séamus also cycled for Ireland in the Olympics, riding the 1984 road race in Los Angeles.  Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Mark Downey: will compete in his first Olympics in Tokyo, pairing with Felix English in the Madison. His father Séamus also cycled for Ireland in the Olympics, riding the 1984 road race in Los Angeles. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

It used to be the single most important factor in determining your prospects of success on any sporting stage was choosing your parents wisely.

Especially when it came to a stage such as the Tokyo Olympics, where we all know nothing succeeds like success, and where failure is nothing at all to write home about.

Only now it seems it’s become equally important to choose your siblings wisely – a brother or a sister who can help lead the way, and if they’re lucky maybe come along for the ride too.

Those parents are still handy, whatever perfect pieces of DNA are theirs for inheriting, and they’re usually good for a dig out too when it comes to putting that all-important funding into place. Just don’t underestimate the power of some sibling rivalry.

Team Ireland has plenty of these Olympic family ties. We were talking with Mark Downey during the week, the 25-year-old Irish rider who is set for his first Olympics in Tokyo, pairing with Felix English in that most arduous of track cycling events, the Madison: as in 50km of racing, one rider alternating with the other, handing off in those slick slingshot movements – and named after the original Madison Square Garden in New York, where the event first took off.

Downey chose his parents wisely as his father Séamus also cycled for Ireland in the Olympics, riding the 1984 road race in Los Angeles, along with the likes of Paul Kimmage and Martin Earley.

He has a mother too, naturally. Given the record size of Team Ireland in Tokyo, across 19 sports, Downey is not alone on that either, with several more fathers and sons and also mothers and daughters keeping this Irish Olympic tradition well within the family.

Nicholas Roche will ride his fourth Olympic road race in Tokyo, once again following in the wheels of his father, Stephen, who competed in the same event in Moscow in 1980.

Annalise Murphy will sail in her third Olympics, again following in the sails of her mother, Cathy, who competed in the 470 class in Seoul in 1988.

And Sam Watson will be making his Olympic debut as part of the Irish Eventing team, the 35-year-old from Carlow being the son of John Watson, a multiple World and European Championships medalist in Eventing, who also competed for Ireland in Seoul.

Others chose wisely too. Terry Kennedy is part of the pioneering Ireland Rugby Sevens team in Tokyo: his father Terry Snr didn’t compete in the Olympics, although he also played rugby for Ireland, winning 13 caps from 1978 to 1981, and was part of the similarly pioneering team that won a first ever two-Test series over Australia on their own territory in 1979.

I ran into Terry Snr in the Blue Light pub a while back, and there was little disguising the pride he felt in seeing his son chase success in his chosen sport, especially when it happened to be his chosen sport too.

Road race

I could also run through our athletics team in Tokyo and point to several sons and daughters of Irish athletes who succeeded in their own right, even if running short of the Olympics.

Louise Shanahan secured her Tokyo qualification over 800m after winning the National title last month, her father Ray also being a former Irish 1,500 champion indoors. Marcus Lawler is also set for his first Olympics in the 200m, his mother Patricia being Irish senior 100m champion in 1981.

Back to Mark Downey. Growing up in Dromore in Down, being the son of a 1984 Olympian was never pushed on him, certainly not by his father Séamus. Actually the young Downey was more likely to hear tales of his father’s career from those who dropped into the family bike shop, Downey Cycles. Such as that road race in LA, Downey finishing 43rd, beating by one place Dutch rider Jean-Paul van Poppel, who went on to win nine stages in the Tour de France, plus the green jersey in 1987.

It was only when his brother Sean, six years his senior, took to cycling, and began to enjoy some considerable success of his own, that Downey aspired to doing something similar. He can’t say for certain whether or not he’s going to Tokyo in part because of his father’s success, but definitely in part because of his brother’s success, which included a bronze medal with Northern Ireland at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in the team pursuit.

“I did realise that my dad competing in the Olympics did mean he was one of the top guys of his time,” said Downey, “but he never really pushed me into the sport, there was never any pressure, he always wanted to keep it fun.

“And for me, being young, I always wanted to beat what my brother had done. Say if he’d won this race by one minute, I wanted to win it by two minutes. I think my brother was maybe out to better my father, and then I was out to better my brother again. Though we’re not really competitive like that, it’s just friendly banter, a bit of craic.”

Thomas Barr: “We always had a rivalry. A healthy sibling rivalry but she was always the athlete in the house really until I started to come up through the ranks.,” says Barr of his older sister Jessie, an Olympian in 2012. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Thomas Barr: “We always had a rivalry. A healthy sibling rivalry but she was always the athlete in the house really until I started to come up through the ranks.,” says Barr of his older sister Jessie, an Olympian in 2012. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Maybe it all is, and there are plenty more tales where this came from.

Thomas Barr has made no secret of the fact the only reason he got into athletics growing up in Dunmore East in Waterford was because he wanted to follow his older sister Jessie.

“We always had a rivalry,” he said. “A healthy sibling rivalry but she was always the athlete in the house really until I started to come up through the ranks.”

Jessie competed in London 2012 with the 4x400m relay team, and although injury cut short her career, she’ll still be in Tokyo with her brother as one of the sports performance psychologists with Team Ireland.

Silver medal

This sort of healthy sibling rivalry runs strong elsewhere in the team too, explaining in part perhaps why Michaela and Aidan Walsh are the first sister and brother to make an Irish Olympic boxing team, the Belfast siblings often training together at the Monkstown club in Antrim; or likewise why Ben and Megan Fletcher are the first brother and sister to make an Irish Olympic judo team, also training together during the parts of the lockdown at their home club in Wokingham, west of London.

It’s a play in other ways too, Shane Lowry calling on his younger brother, Alan, to act as his caddy in Tokyo, knowing full well that success there would mean to the Lowry family back home.

Don’t underestimate either the power of some lasting rivalry between the most famous Irish Olympic siblings of all: five years after winning the silver medal in the lightweight sculls with his older brother, Gary, Paul O’Donovan will be paired in Tokyo with Fintan McCarthy, the 24-year-old Skibbereen native with whom he’s already won a World and European gold medal.

Paul has been remarkably philosophical about the absence of Gary this time, pointing to the fact that the decision is entirely performance-based, evidence they were never paired in the first place just because they were brothers. There’s also the calm reminder that Gary is first reserve and may well get a call into the boat should say Covid-19 somehow interfere.

Truth is it can’t be easy on either of them, only knowing a little about how sibling rivalry works in any sporting arena, the last thing Paul will want in this situation is to disappoint Gary. Not with some pride of the O’Donovan family at stake. The best way of doing that is to win a gold medal.

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