Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy join Ireland’s Olympic immortals

Duo become just the seventh gold medal-winning athletes in Irish history

The pair became the first Irish rowers in history to claim a gold medal at the Olympic Games, beating Germany in the lightweight double sculls. Video: Reuters

 

There is a rare and special place in the history of Irish sport called the top of the Olympic medal podium, a place that has to be believed to be seen, and Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy will be beaming in the golden aftermath of it for some time to come.

Displaying again their vast reserves of spirit and class on the water, their victory in the men’s lightweight double sculls, decided after a suitably thrilling race which saw them edge past the German boat inside the last quarter of the race, also makes them only the seventh gold medal winners for Ireland in the long history of the modern Olympic Games.

They follow after athletes Dr Pat O’Callaghan in 1928 and 1932, Bob Tisdall in 1932 and Ronnie Delany in 1956, boxers Michael Carruth in 1992 and Katie Taylor in 2012, and swimmer Michelle Smith in 1996 - all rare and special in their own ways.

These gold medals were won in different circumstances too. The Cork pair - the reigning World and European champions -  were the raging hot favourites. They still had to deliver when it mattered most, and had choppy conditions and a strong tailwind to contend with also.

Later, the gold medals draped around their necks shining in the midday sun, they spoke of some relief, yes, but also the confidence they had carried into the race going back months; everything about their winning preparation meant they were prepared to win.

“Yeah, they’re very stylish,” O’Donovan said about his medal, adding that he hadn’t once thought about it during the race, ensuring instead all the effort was in the here and now.

“Not a lot, to be honest. You would be in auto-pilot there half the time. The Germans and the Italians always have the quick start, you can be sure of that, and for once then we had a good start. It hadn’t been for the lack of effort [until this]. The rest of the time we weren’t going off fast so it was a bit of a surprise when it did there and we weren’t totally dropped in the first 500 and then we just put the heads down and ploughed on.

“Fintan said a few things alright there a few times.”

To which McCarthy added with a smile: “A few grunts there alright early in the race.”

They started cautiously, as is their way, in third behind the German boat and the Italians, but inch by inch, stroke by stroke, they got themselves on par with Germany. Still they had to fight off the Germans all the way to the line, winning by just 0.86 of a second, the Italians nearly eight seconds back in third.

“The two boys were looking very strong all week, so credit to them,” O’Donovan said. “As they were saying, it was the closest they have been for a long time so they really made us work hard and Italy as well pushing us from the start. They didn’t let us have it easy that’s for sure.”

O’Donovan and McCarthy celebrate winning gold. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
O’Donovan and McCarthy celebrate winning gold. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Not long after that McCarthy raised both arms in his moment of triumph, as well he might, before O’Donovan turned around and simply shook his hand in sheer delight.

There was no fear, only respect, for the German effort in the boat beside them.

“No, I don’t think there was any moment of panic,” said O’Donovan. “We were kind of happy out with our position, like. We often have a big sprint at the end if we need it so we knew if we were sitting level or even a bit behind we could pull something off. We were eking out a bit of a finish before the end so that was good.”

“No, I’d say not,” McCarthy agreed. “Surprisingly not. I would usually get a bit nervous but I felt ready. It was good. Yeah, I had a little celebration there after the race but chilled out now. Yeah, I was definitely relieved when crossing the line. It was just nice that things went to plan.”

McCarthy had to spend the best part of an hour in anti-doping after the medal ceremony which, due to Covid-19, saw the Irish pair present their medals to each other: “Yeah, the arms were a bit tired there, trying to lift the medal around my own neck,” said O’Donovan.

Asked about the level of race confidence, O’Donovan said: “I don’t think you can put a figure on it, like. How would you calculate that out? There are too many variables to be putting a number on that kind of thing.

“I’d say if we didn’t have a perfect start we’d probably have made a good go to win the race as well, like. Like, we row all the time, twice a day every day of the year really, and stuff doesn’t generally go wrong. That’s over 700 training sessions a year, and I’d say once or twice you’d have a mishap so they’re not bad odds really.”

It’s only a third ever medal for Irish rowing and the 27-year-old O’Donovan is already one of most decorated medal winners in Irish sport. But his silver in Rio, five years ago with his older brother Gary, his four World Championship gold medals and his two European gold medals have never weighed him down. McCarthy, aged 24, took over as his regular partner for their World title win in 2019.

This Olympic victory came just 24 hours after Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty overhauled the British boat to win bronze in the women’s four, a first medal for Ireland at these Tokyo Games, then only the second ever for Irish rowing and, more significant for them perhaps, a breakthrough and seminal moment for Irish women’s rowing.

“After winning the gold medal here today, and a silver medal last time I probably am a little bit happier because, as a kid, you’re dreaming of winning a gold medal,” said O’Donovan. “A silver medal is nice but Fintan did the right job, straight to the top in his first Games so he must be pretty happy too.”

Oh, he surely was. “Obviously really proud to be bringing home the gold. I hadn’t really thought about it before. I think just for ourselves anyway it’s really satisfying to have done it. Great to make everyone at home proud and put Ireland in the history books.”

“They say they’re all different in their own way,” O’Donovan said before the Games of his already vast medal tally, before adding: “There was a pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, who said, ‘A man can never fall in the same river twice'. I suppose that’s because he’s a different man and the river is always moving and changing as well. I’m a bit of a different person going into this Olympics.”

A different person coming out of them too, a gold medal winner with McCarthy, his place in Irish sporting history now assured beyond any doubt.

Tokyo 2020

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