Ian O’Riordan: Bursting this Tokyo bubble could be the biggest challenge of all

Assisting athletes to transition out of the Games is a vital part of the experience

Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan loses his balance  during the Men’s Pommel Horse Final at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo. Photograph:  Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan loses his balance during the Men’s Pommel Horse Final at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

 

Room 201 of the Sakura Hotel and we’re beginning to resemble a Francis Bacon studio mid-life crisis period. What is left of my desk space is fast disappearing between the empty water bottles and pages of results and unused chopsticks and that’s the mostly tidy part.

This is what happens nearly three weeks already living inside the Tokyo Olympic bubble and under a set of Games rules unlike any other. Including here at the Sakura: housekeeping is off the list as that’s a Covid risk too evidently, so we change our own sheets and towels each morning or evening depending on whether we’re coming or going.

There are some minor concessions. The 7-Eleven on the corner is open 24/7 actually and always has a stack of cold refreshing drinks when it gets too hot to sleep. Asahi or Kirin? Suntory or Sapporo? They cost around €1.50 a can, and under the apparently liberal liquor laws in Japan, the only ID required of me to buy drink at any time of the night is to press a YES next to the cash register to confirm I am indeed over the age of 20.

By the look of me now they would see that clearly. Every Olympics takes a physical and mental toll unlike any sporting event, except for maybe the previous Olympics, only everything about Tokyo has been aging in other ways too. It’s not just the endless bus trips in between the taxi rides and the security checks going into each venue, admittedly assisted at times by industrial amounts of pure adrenaline and repeated shots of caffeine; it’s also the heat and dehydration and the constant wearing of the mask that eventually gets to you if the time difference hasn’t already.

Still there is nowhere else in the world to be for the working sports reporter, and with the range and contrast of Team Ireland performances, from the magnificent highs to shattering lows and everything else in between, there’s never been a dull moment. Sometimes you think you might deserve a medal too, maybe even all three.

Truth is the only people who can begin to understand what the Tokyo Olympic bubble is really like are the athletes who have lived inside it, and no one can fully understand yet what it will be like to live outside again and return to whatever sense of normality has been lost these past few weeks and months. Everyone has to meet the real world again on their own terms, and God knows what it must be like for them.

Because the transition will always be infinitely more magnified, given most have dedicated at least the last five years of their life in getting here, and sometimes take just as long trying to find a way out.

The largest Irish team in Olympic history, arguably the best prepared and certainly best funded, some of the language being used around their performances has also been telling. There have always been buzz words like “managing expectations” and “athlete transition”, and exiting the Tokyo Olympic bubble is not as straightforward as signing off on the last of the Covid paperwork and then going home.

Some invariably will handle it better than others; some visibly dealing with their end results differently already, like Sanita Puspure or Ciara Mageean, versus say Rhys McClenaghan or Paul O’Donovan.

Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan show off their gold medals after victory in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls Final. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images
Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan show off their gold medals after victory in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls Final. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

We got access to some Team Ireland members at the Athletes’ Village on Friday and asked high-performance director Bernard Dunne why several Irish boxers, including Kellie Harrington and Michaela Walsh, had said a few times their performance in Tokyo “won’t define me, or who I am”, which is sometimes easier said than done.

“It’s language we would always use around our team,” said Dunne. “We came here focused on performance, focusing on the step by step. Kellie is now on to the final step on her ladder.” The point being they won’t be defined by success or failure (and possibly among the buzz words by Kevin McManamon, the Dublin eight-time All-Ireland winner out here in Tokyo as one of the performance coaches with the boxing team).

The Irish boxers have been almost 40 days and nights inside the Tokyo Olympic bubble already. Brendan Irvine, the team leader who jointly carried the Irish flag with Harrington at the opening ceremony, was also asked about how he was processing his performance? In Rio 2016, he was beaten by the eventual gold medallist, Shakhobdin Zoirov from Uzbekistan, who will again fight for gold in Tokyo.

“To be honest I probably won’t get over it until I get home, and I’m in a place where I can think. Because there’s too much going on here, it’s too busy to try and make a decision and think about things so I’ll wait until I get home, have a rest and think about things.”

Earlier this year Sport Ireland announced a core sporting package of €40 million, much of it wrapped around Tokyo, around €10 million more than handed out in 2016, with €8.5m going to support high-performance programmes. In their High Performance Strategy 2021-2032, published just prior to Tokyo, one of the key 10 outcomes was to ensure athlete welfare and support transition.

The Athlete Performance Transition Programme was set up in the aftermath of London 2012. It was no coincidence that Gary Keegan, the former performance director of Irish boxing, was the man behind it, and nine years on this transition programme plays an increasingly important role, whether athletes were successful in Tokyo or not.

Keegan saw exactly how so many athletes struggled post-Beijing, in 2008: seven months after winning silver in Beijing, Kenny Egan officially went AWOL, later admitting that drink was driving his boxing career down the drain, and only thanks to family and friends was he able to save it. Then a little over a year after winning bronze in Beijing, Darren Sutherland was found dead in his apartment in London, his Olympic success, and the pressure to build on that professionally, driving him into such a deep depression that suicide seemed like the only escape.

The importance of the Athlete Performance Transition Programme has also been highlighted by former Cork rower Gearóid Towey, who described his post-Olympic transition as “dark and solitary”. Towey competed in three Olympics, starting in Sydney 2000, aged 23, finishing in Beijing 2008, in both the lightweight doubles and fours, and later set up the Crossing the Line Sport organisation for the sole purpose of assisting athletes through that transition – not just from the Olympic bubble.

Patience and understanding was key in Towey’s experience, as in he rushed headlong into other adventures to keep him from touching the void, including an aborted Atlantic rowing crossing. “There are lots of transferable skills you can take from being an athlete into normal life but there’s also a lot of things about being an athlete that you should probably leave in the Olympic Village,” he said. “It is a process to work that out.”

In headline acts like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka there’s already been increased attention brought on the mental health of athletes at the Games, when in fact most of the challenges come when exiting the Tokyo Olympic bubble, not living inside it.

Tokyo 2020

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