Ian O’Riordan: Olympic documentary series keeps focus despite shifting horizons

Darragh Bambrick’s three-part series looks at nine Irish athletes on the long road to Tokyo

There is a place in the realms of all good documentary film-making called the cutting-room floor and for the past few weeks Darragh Bambrick has been drowning not waving under the unfathomable depth of it. Actually if there was a documentary to be made about the making of his latest documentary it would surely win a gold medal somewhere and deservedly so.

When we talked earlier this week he sounded somewhat like Werner Herzog with his Fitzcarraldo. Howard Hawks always said a good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes, and Bambrick possibly thought of that too when he first started out making Horizon Tokyo: the simple premise was the follow nine Irish athletes as the Tokyo Olympics loomed with increasing presence on the 2020 horizon, then split them into three one-hour episodes with a neat beginning, middle and end.

Three good stories and no bad scenes per episode would likely have worked out perfectly fine and Bambrick had a track record to prove it. This is the same documentary film-maker who made the London Calling series (ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London) and Road to Rio (before Rio 2016), and I’ve spoken to him before about the unique and lasting bond created with the athletes he gets to follow as they follow their lifelong hopes and dreams. It’s a rare and special insight into a rare and beautiful thing.

Federico Fellini also said there are two things that always look good in a film – a train and snow. An Olympic athlete would make my number three. Bambrick also considers himself lucky that he got to follow the likes of Rob Heffernan and Kenneth Egan over their Olympic journeys, and still nothing was to prepare him or anyone else for the journey towards Tokyo. Not when a global pandemic came out of the proverbial nowhere and for a long time stopped the whole deal dead in its tracks.


So what was originally planned to be a two-year film-making journey was extended by exactly 12 months, and Bambrick is still standing on that cutting-room floor: the final edit won't be finished until the night before episode one airs on Monday week, featuring 1,500m runner Ciara Mageean, boxer Kellie Harrington and swimmer Shane Ryan. Episode two features 400m hurdler Thomas Barr, sprinter Leon Reid, and cyclist Orla Walsh. Episode three features Jack Woolley, Ireland's first ever Olympic qualifier in Taekwondo, Paralympics swimmer Ellen Keane, and sprinter Gina Apke-Moses.

Oftentimes it felt like these Tokyo Olympics were somehow cursed, and God knows maybe they still are. At some point Bambrick also lost the headline sponsor for the series, plus his first-choice editor, not entirely unexpected or surprising given the uncertainty around the Games. For both London and Rio the series was the easiest sell, only this time everyone was wondering A) would the Olympics even happen and B) would there even be a documentary to show?

Bambrick himself, though, took on several of the biggest gambles, not least in picking the nine athletes to follow. When he started out in November 2018, none of them had yet qualified for Tokyo, and there was no guarantee that any of them would. Who would want to watch a documentary about that? (Spoiler alert: as of time of this writing, seven of the nine have qualified, and there’s the outside possibility of one more.)

Once Covid-19 put the world and everyone in it into lockdown in March of 2020, the only hope then was if all else failed at least he’d have a documentary about an Olympics that didn’t actually happen. By March of 2020 he’d more or less had the series cut and ready to go, just waiting on the last few details. Suddenly the journey of his nine athletes was only beginning all over again. As it turns out it was the best thing that could have happened for the series, adding new depths and layers previously unimaginable.

He found Shane Ryan trying to recall what it is like to actually swim in the water. He found Kellie Harrington trying to remember what it’s like to be punched in the face. He found the always happy-go-lucky Thomas Barr saddened like a sick puppy. Everyone had to reassess and reset and easier said than done.

For Mageean normality turned again when her former coach Jerry Kiernan died suddenly in January, aged 67. Even by her own consistently eloquent standards this was a testing time for Mageean. So it continued: Leon Reid was hit with drugs and gun charges in the UK at the beginning of April, which he has denied. Bambrick had been drawn into Reid's story from the word go, and wanted desperately to keep his story in the series. He can only tell so much, only perhaps he can still show more than he can tell, at least in terms of the person Reid is.

In ways that further pressed his preference for telling each story in the here and now, not the there and then, showing and telling each step of their Olympic cycle and story as it unfolded. Now, more than ever too ,stories like these are lost to modern media and culture, such is the increasing reign of restraint. Bambrick is sure of one thing: no way would these stories have told in the professional sporting arena, or even say the GAA for that matter. He also wanted to seek the absolute truth of what it takes to succeed in this arena, and from the outset the buy-in had to be all or nothing at all.

It often made for a delicate balancing act, the fact his nine athletes stuck with him every step of the way a ringing endorsement that the series comes out the right side of that act. Getting a sneak preview myself feels somewhat unfair, as none of the nine athletes get to see one second of the series before it goes out live on national TV.

The Harrington story he found particularly compelling: some 49 days out from Tokyo (and two broken bones in her hand later) she still hadn’t got the chance to qualify, and in his decade of film-making he’d never experienced the sort of pressure or expectation that she faced going into her qualifying tournament in Paris earlier this month. The resolve and belief and sheer determination he witnessed that afternoon was properly breathtaking. Occasionally too Bambrick would pause and ask himself why the hell are these people doing this?

Earlier this month Bambrick turned on the radio to hear Joe Duffy’s Liveline pontificating on all the reasons why Tokyo shouldn’t go ahead. Like anyone with any interest in the Games he had to convince himself otherwise, looking at his 10GB hard drive with hundreds of thousands of hours of film footage, his only thought then was for the athletes, knowing full well already what a wild, wild ride it had been to get this far.

Before wrapping it all up he's got Andy Lee to do the voiceover, the 2004 Olympic boxer bringing not just an authenticity to that process, but an understanding too. Even if there may never be another Olympic journey like this one.

Episode one of Tokyo Horizon airs on Monday, June 28th at 10:35pm on RTÉ One. Don’t you dare miss it.