The problem with most of the talk around the Tokyo Olympics right now – should or shouldn't they go ahead? – is the difficulty in separating athlete ambition from medical reason, or indeed fact masquerading as opinion.
Which is why it may or may not be reassuring to hear from Philip Doyle, the Irish rower eminently qualified on all fronts, including the brief surrendering of his own Olympic ambition to work on the original frontline of Covid-19, as a medical doctor in the wards of Ulster Hospital.
Last weekend, after returning from an eight-month leave of absence from his rowing career, Doyle was back in the men's double sculls alongside Ronan Byrne at the European Championships in Varese, Italy. Some 19 months after securing their Tokyo qualification at the 2019 World Championships, the pair missed out on the A final before going on to win the B final.
The 28-year-old Doyle, now fully qualified, chooses several words to describe that performance – “disappointing, embarrassing, hard to stomach, humbling” – but what is certain is that it’s reinforced their determination to make a mark in Tokyo, now 99 days away.
With or without that renewed determination to seek medal salvation in Tokyo, Doyle’s experience in the medical profession has given him other hope and reason as to why he thinks the Olympics should go ahead.
With the Olympics, it's not this club and that city, it's an entire country and the flag coming together, it's who you belong to
“Not just specifically me, as a doctor,” he says. “We’re trying to keep that spirit alive as much as we can, it shows people that things will go on. I think when you have anything outside of your work, it really emphasises the importance of it. Anybody can go to work, and it’s great to have a job during pandemics and it’s great to be able to contribute and do things like that.
‘Enthused and refreshed’
“That’s why a lot of those businesses have been going online to keep people enthused and refreshed. Otherwise people stagnate and when you stagnate you lose that joie de vivre, the happiness, the thing that gives life essence and gives you a reason to get up and go to work in the morning.
“Especially in the healthcare system at the minute, I’ve a lot of friends who are training to be GPs and they’re saying there’s a lot of mental health, there’s a lot of depression, there’s a lot of people struggling and there’s a lot of people living really crummy lives in comparison to that middle-class bracket.
“And it’s so evident to those people how good life can be, because of social media. They’re so aware and they know what they don’t have. So to be able to join in with something like that, for someone to lift you. Especially with the Olympics, it’s not this club and that city, it’s an entire country and the flag coming together, it’s who you belong to. Seeing how anything, not just sport, can lift somebody’s mentality and boost their mood, especially as a doctor looking at it with what you see in the hospitals, if you can keep somebody’s mental health, their physical health will follow and they’ll look after themselves.”
Speaking at the announcement of Deloitte’s new partnership agreement with the Olympic Federation of Ireland up to and including the 2024 Olympics Paris (now just three years away and very much on Doyle’s radar), the Irish rower also gave his reasoned opinion on whether or not athletes should be given any sort of priority when it comes to vaccination against Covid-19.
“It’s hard to balance that, to be honest. I feel like I’m answering a medical student interview and I’m giving you both sides with no direct answer. I think we should be vaccinated, to be honest, but I don’t think we should be vaccinated ahead of somebody more vulnerable, because we don’t fall into that category.
“I know there’s talk around what the categories should be, and I’ll stay away from that topic because that’s for someone who gets paid a lot more than we do.
“But if we’re forced to travel to do our sport, and for all the other reasons we talked about – boosting morale and all that – in the country and getting over to Tokyo, you need to protect people at home when you’re coming back and that’s one way to protect them and to protect us while we’re away, and to get the results in those sports.”