Malachy Clerkin: Gold medals and fantastic, fearless failure – Tokyo, it was emotional

By most measures, being an Olympian is an insane thing to do with your life

Tears before breakfast for Kellie Harrington. Hunkered on the floor in the kitchen as Natalya Coyle’s horse downed tools. Trying not to wake the house fist-pumping the rowers home. Silent screams for Rhys McClenaghan. Ugh for the hockey women and the rugby sevens men. Tears before bedtime for Brendan Boyce.

Thank the heavens and Thomas Bach we don’t have to do it all again for another three years.

That’s the one good thing about the Olympics being over. Like, who has the emotional energy for this stuff? Maybe it was the fact that a lot of it happened in the depths of night. Maybe it’s just sleep deprivation finding its expression. But you’d be drained after it all.

Actually, here’s what it is. The Olympics reminds us that most of the time - almost all of the time, in fact - sport is about failure. Ireland sent 116 athletes to Tokyo. Eight came back with medals, two golds and two bronzes divided between them. Twenty ranked in the top eight in their sport. Thomas Barr missed the hottest final in athletics by a single place. Boyce managed a thoroughly heroic 10th in the hardest event in the games, the 50k walk.



That leaves 94 Olympians who come home various shades of unheralded. Some of them got the best out of themselves. Some of them had disasters. Some of them found the air at the pinnacle of their chosen sport so thin they could barely remember to breathe. All of them will sit in quiet rooms in the weeks to come, picking their way through the deal they have made with themselves, with their families, with their circles, with their lives.

Do you go on? You know the distance to the summit now. You know that by the time Paris comes around, it will be even higher. Do you keep moving towards it? If so, why? What makes you think you can get there? Don’t you know you will almost certainly come up short? Failure isn’t a far-off, existential threat. It is by some distance the most likely outcome.

And yet, despite that sure and certain knowledge, Olympic athletes invest so much of their time and energy and hopes and dreams in these small, ephemeral, fleeting chances of success. This is true of all sports, of course. But there’s something so potent about that long Olympic cycle, that absolute requirement for the planets to align at that one specific point in time that sets Olympians apart. By most measures, it’s an insane thing to do with your life.

Think about it. Imagine the sort of weirdo you have to be to decide as a teenager that you want to compete in modern pentathlon. Your friends all play football or basketball or do athletics or drama or music or whatever. But you pick modern pentathlon. You run and shoot and swim and fence and jump horses.

And you don’t just compete in it, you aim to get to the Olympics. And you don’t just aim at the games but you actually get there. And you don’t just get there but you do so three times. And you don’t just get there three times but when it comes to the last one you’ll ever do, you’re virtually flawless in your first two events and you’re on the verge of a medal.

And then a horse you met 20 minutes ago for the first time decides he doesn’t fancy it. And just like that, you’re toast. Thanks for coming. Have a nice life. Sport is so very merciless like that. The Olympics, all the more so.

Watching Coyle and McClenaghan and Annalise Murphy and Ciara Mageean and so many others this past fortnight has been to stand in awe. Not of their failures - they don’t need that kind of patronising. But definitely of their willingness to fail. And their willingness to do so on a global stage, in the full view and judgements of the masses who most of the time don’t give them a second look.

Because when you think about it, how many of us are ever truly willing to fail at anything? Failure ought to be the most relatable thing in sport. It’s the one thing we all know we are capable of. But in real life, in our work, in our relationships, in anything, how often do any of us really put ourselves in a position where there is the possibility of publicly falling short?


Didn’t get the girl? Didn’t want her anyway. Didn’t get the job? Sure it’s a closed shop, everyone knows that. Didn’t break 90? Stupid game, you’re buying the drinks. Actual failure, actual gut-wrenching, day-ruining, life-pausing failure is so incredibly rare because it involves making yourself vulnerable in front of the watching world.

It’s being a teenage boy and telling everyone you’re going to be a gymnast and you’re going to go to the Olympics and everyone sneering behind your back and doing it anyway and then getting there and putting your finger in the wrong position on the pommel horse and seeing five years go up in smoke.

It’s quitting your job and taking out a credit union loan and moving back in with your parents to train and qualify and get beaten in the first round. It’s a thousand different versions of that same thing, pouring all you have and all you are into something that probably can’t be done.

“I’ve had heartbreak,” Harrington said after her semi-final. “I know what it is to fail and I know how hard it is to pick yourself back up after that. This is why I am who I am, and why I am here today, because I’m not afraid of failure. I know what it is. I’m Kellie Harrington. I’m myself and I make my own pathway.”

Every one of the Olympic athletes did the same. Watching where those pathways all ultimately led has been emotional, never more so than at dawn on a Sunday morning when we cried and cried and cried. But the fact that most of the other Irish athletes’ pathways ended in failure doesn’t lessen them. Not in these eyes anyway.

Roll on Paris.