Jack Woolley: ‘there’s absolutely no reason I can’t win the gold medal’

Skinny Irish kid no longer just a taekwondo novelty but a real threat for Olympic medals

There is no reset button this time. Come Sunday, across the city of 38 million people, the countdown clocks dotted at major Tokyo landmarks will become increasing visible: 121 days to go . . .

Is it too real for you?

In part because the almost three-month long state of emergency in the Tokyo region will formally end this Sunday, the Japanese government announcing their decision on Thursday after Covid-19 infections suitably declined, and with that lifting - perhaps clearing rather - one of the last potential barriers to this summer’s Olympics.

Around the same time on Thursday, Jack Woolley was announced as only the second formally selected Irish athlete for Tokyo. A first on other fronts: in the countdown to the Rio Olympics in 2016, Woolley was last seen crying his eyes out on national television, a teenager left broken-hearted after falling just short of becoming the country's first ever representative in taekwondo.


Four years later, Woolley secured his qualification for Tokyo with ample time to spare, before time was put on hold. Now, 21 has turned 22, and any fear the delay has dented his Olympic aspirations is promptly discarded as his opposition so often are. “When I fight well, I’m unstoppable,” he says.

Crowds or no crowds, noisy or otherwise, Woolley’s selection is perhaps a reminder the Olympics appear destined to happen this time. He never once lost sight of his goal, not just of competing but fighting for gold, in a sport where the skinny Irish kid is no longer just a novelty but a real threat.

“I think every athlete wants to go out and say I’m going for gold, you’re not going to turn up to the Games and say I’m going for a bronze,” he says, careful not disguise his confidence for aloofness.

“Over a period of time I’ve built up confidence. Do I feel I can win it? Of course I can because I’ve beaten some of the athletes who are going to the Olympics, the ones that have beaten me, it’s been close. If I perform 100 per cent on the day there’s absolutely no reason I can’t win the gold medal.

“Before I was probably going out there for experience and could I have possibly nicked a bronze if I was on form. Now if I’m on form I don’t see anyone in the division beating me.”

That division is 58kg, where Woolley is ranked seventh in the world, and likely to go even higher after the European Championships in Bulgaria in three weeks' time. Like most of his fellow Olympians, 2020 was turned either upside down or inside out: the Olympic Federation of Ireland currently have 54 qualified athletes, across 12 sports, though before Woolley, only canoe slalom racer Liam Jegou was formally selected.

Stern confidence

Woolley already has the date in the diary circled again, one year on, competing in the Makuhari Messe Hall on July 24th, the day after the opening ceremony. His stern confidence might defy his modest Tallaght background, only Woolley has stood out from the beginning in other ways too, opening up about his sexuality on that same television slot, the six-part Road to Rio series, when he was still only 17.

“It hurt for a little while,” he says of missing out on Rio, “but I was still young and probably going to go to the Games for the sake of going to the Games, at that age. Now I’m going to win, so there is a big difference in talent and maturity and just overall myself I feel a lot better now. And the fact this might be a bit of a scaled-down Olympics, it’s going to be more like my typical competitions, more like the Europeans.”

Before, fighting at 54kg, making weight was a constant and usually irritable battle: now he can walk around at 62kg, and know he can easily make his weight come competition time. He's also no longer that novelty in a Korean martial art, taekwondo is a properly global sport, with 203 member federations, though traditionally dominated by Asia.

"There was a phase, where it started going into senior, like my first one was the US Open, and to travel that far, to Florida, for an Irish person, at such a young age, they were like 'this might be out of his depth". And I went and took a bronze. Now, taekwondo is extremely European-based. Like out of the top six who qualified for the Games in my weight division, four are actually from Europe. But I think I've made a name for myself, and made a name for Ireland, and I think nobody is going to underestimate us again."

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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