Highs and lows on Road to Rio captured every step of the way

New RTÉ series has followed 10 Olympic journeys around the world over the last four years

Even that old Emerson line about life being a journey, not a destination, has rarely sounded so fresh – and that’s before the end of episode one. Perhaps because to fully understand what it means to qualify for the Olympics we must first understand what it means not to.

It’s what ‘Road to Rio’ set out to do, although not necessarily in that order. Indeed the 10 Olympic journeys which make up the new six-part series, which begins this Wednesday on RTÉ2 (8.30pm), don’t all reach their intended destination, which is what makes it such emotionally engaging viewing from the very outset.

Some we know well in advance: Michael Conlan’s quest to turn his Olympic bronze from London 2012 into gold in Rio this August is so far going exactly to plan, although that doesn’t make his journey any less interesting. The Belfast boxer isn’t all about Rio these days and episode one makes that perfectly clear.

“When we knew we were having her,” Conlon says, holding his baby daughter Luisne, “it just kind of clicked in my head that everything I do now is not for me no more, it’s for her.”


Others we know almost nothing about: at age 17 Jack Woolley appears absurdly young to be even setting out for Rio, yet before the outcome of his intended destination becomes clear his journey proves unexpectedly revealing and life-strengthening far beyond his sport of taekwondo.

“Jack was kicking before he was born,” says his mother, Annette. “Jack came out kicking. Jack hasn’t stopped kicking. Jack literally used to go down the aisles in Tesco and he’d be kicking. He’d be standing at bus stops and kicking the bus stops. He doesn’t stop. My furniture is in bits because he’s kicking the furniture. It’s his life. It is him.”

That Road to Rio was there to follow Woolley on his journey towards Rio, every step of the way, is unquestionably the highlight of episode one; also in revealing the astonishing athleticism of taekwondo, just how good he is, from when he first took up the sport in the west Dublin suburbs.

“Jobstown I know is quite a rough place,” he says, “you might hear it on the news and stuff. But it’s where I’m from, and I’m proud to be from here.”

And that's just for starters. Episode one does carry a minor spoiler alert, and for good reason: when setting out on their own journey, three years ago, Road to Rio filmmakers Darragh Bambrick (director) and Drew Banerjee (producer) had no idea what the end destination of their series would be, which is why it's best revealed in the moment of initial viewing.

“Definitely, I wouldn’t have imagined this end product, starting out,” says Bambrick, who along with Banerjee was also behind the equalling revealing London Calling series, ahead of the 2012 Games. “And it’s more or less been a four year journey for us, since London, and in that way we became a part of all their journeys, travelling the world, because that’s the life of an Olympian, always on the go, trying to qualify.

“Then when they don’t make, it possesses all the hard questions, about who you are, what you’re doing it. It can be intense, but that’s the reality, that people sacrifice huge chunks of their life to reach this goal, and don’t always make it. Very few actually do.”

To capture the 10 Olympics journeys in every little detail, they covered 118,000km (over nine journeys around the world), visiting 18 countries, on three continents, finishing up with eight terabytes of film footage (which would take three days to download on the average computer). It made for a 50:1 ratio in terms of minutes shot compared to minutes used in the show.

Also sharing the journey as much as the athletes are their families and coaches: "It's not all on me," says swimmer Fiona Doyle, "because I did the hard work. It's because everybody else supported me, put in that effort too. They are the main reason I am where I am. Yes, I might have done the hours in the pool. But they're the ones that mop up the tears."

Also featured are in the programme are Robert Heffernan (walk); Cian O'Connor (showjumping); Ryan Seaton and Matthew McGovern (49er class sailing); Paul Pollock (marathon) Natalya Coyle (modern pentathlon); Sarah Lavin (100m hurdles); Martyn Irvine (track cycling)

Road to Rio begins this Wednesday at 8.30pm on RTÉ2.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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