Rings a bell - Our writers’ memories of Rio

From Thomas Barr’s heroics, to the lows of Michael Conlon and Katie Taylor’s exits

Michael Conlan’s post-defeat interview was grief in sport at it’s most cruel. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Michael Conlan’s post-defeat interview was grief in sport at it’s most cruel. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho


Ian O’Riordan -Thomas Barr’s dreams become reality

Performances of starry-eyed wonder can come at you from all directions at the Olympics, often when you least expect them.

Like on the media bus, late last Tuesday night, racing from the Olympic Stadium to the outer-outer suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, when a member of a Chinese news agency, fast asleep in his seat, was sent flying across the aisle and into the seat immediately adjacent, without the slightest disturbance to the dream he had lost himself in.

This was the same night Thomas Barr may have felt like he was dreaming, only he wasn’t - running 48.39 seconds to win his semi-final of the 400m hurdles. No one expected that, least of all Barr himself, who’d come to Rio without breaking 50 seconds this summer, a long way, it seemed, off his Irish record 48.64, set last year.

At 24, earning himself a prime lane draw, suddenly he was one more race away from an Olympic medal: he’d already become Ireland’s first Olympic sprint event finalist in 84 years, neatly tracing the trial back to Bob Tisdall, who showed up at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles similarly unheralded, to win the gold medal in the same event.

Still, it seemed dreamlike that Barr might get himself into the medals, the following Thursday morning, especially given the quality of opposition. He’d surely have to run faster again, and after a season “riddled” with injury, how mighty an ask was that?

One Barr brilliantly rose to, it turned out, his 47.97 seconds taking another sizeable chunk off his Irish record - was just not quite enough to get him into the medals, only 0.05 away from bronze.

My dad texted me later in the night to say it was, definitely, Ireland’s closest ever fourth-place finish “by a mile”. That was of course a slight exaggeration, although four years ago in London, it would have won Barr bronze; in Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004 it would have won him silver.

“Typical, isn’t it?” Barr said, still without the slightest air of disappointment, his fiercely competitive attitude towards his racing on track as refreshing as his relaxed attitude off of it.

Eamonn Coghlan was also similarly near and yet so far from Olympic bronze - twice, over 1,500m in 1976, and 5,000m in 1980 - and so too was Sonia O’Sullivan over 3,000m, in 1992, Within three years they’d both won a World Championship gold medal, although for Barr, that prospect may actually be closer still.

Next year’s World Championships in London are as good as a home event, for obvious reasons, and such was his performance in Rio that there can only be room to improve. Another o.05 of a second? That would almost certainly win him a medal at next year’s World Championships, and that’s in no way dreaming out loud.

Johnny Watterson - Young grief in sport

Michael Conlan is standing in the middle of the ring, having peeled off his red vest. He is swirling it over his head giving a one fingered insult to the referee, the judges, the International governing body for boxing, the AIBA and the Rio Olympic Games.

He is a young man distraught with anger, furious that the four years of his life devoted to becoming Olympic champion, having won the World Championship last year in Doha, has been taken so cheaply by boxing officials.

There has always been vulnerability about boxing, the loneliness of the ring, often stripped to the waist they go out to perform with nothing except the skills and tactics given by their corner.

Conlan is a 24-year-old striking out in the only way he understands. Despite his fury and energy, he looks desperately vulnerable and alone. There is nothing left for him now. His four year ambition has been shattered. He has been crushed.

Boxing, which has given him so much in his life, has now taken everything.

Second Captains

So alone he stands, a champion of the most disciplined of sports venting his spleen at injustice. The judges sit uncomfortably in their chairs staring ahead as he takes a blow torch to them all.

He leaves the arena scorching the blue blazers. He is at the end of this road. There is no way back. They are “cheats”. They are “fucking cheats”. They are “corrupt.” He leans over to tell them all. It is visceral and confrontational.

The energy of the eruption does not pass and when he arrives in to the mixed zone beside the arena he is still burning with rage. He is talking at speed, almost in a stream of consciousness, deeply wounded and striking out.

Then his father John begins to speak. He is more controlled, his anger barely contained but intense.

It is then Michael stops speaking and drops his head on to the back of his hands on the barrier rail for no more than 10 seconds. If there can be grief in sport this is it.

He raises his head, eyes loaded with tears maybe in the quiet realisation of the finality, that there can be no reversal.

He then turns and violently kicks a plastic water bottle across the floor and crashes through the flimsy doors of the makeshift room, gone from the Rio Games and gone from amateur boxing.

Keith Duggan - Katie’s cruel crisis

In a strange way, the moment of the Olympics I will remember most is the split decision which ended Katie Taylor’s aspirations of winning another gold medal before it had gained any momentum.

On the face of it, there was nothing remarkable about Taylor’s defeat: not winning at the Olympics is the most common experience of the majority of athletes who come to compete. But Taylor had always been the glittering exception to that over the course of a sporting life through which she had helped to bring her sport from the hinterland of public consciousness.

Even though her world championship defeat in May to Estelle Mossely had provided evidence enough that she could no longer dominate her division, the deep down hope was that she would recover in Rio and recover as the tournament went on. The belief was that Taylor would return with a medal: the type of medal was the key question.

All of that stopped when the judges concluded that Mira Potkonen, the Finnish boxer against whom Taylor had never lost, had been the superior boxer. The Irish woman was visibly stunned and when she left the ring, she circled the floor for a few moments, as if trying to relocate her co-ordinates.

The rights and wrongs of the boxing adjudicating in Rio have been explored at length: the Irish coaches were adamant that their fighter had won and could barely suppress their anger.

Taylor was more dazed than angry, believing she had won but allowing that she should be beating fighters like Potkonen comfortably: that on ability she should be removing any choice or debate from the minds of the judges.

Anyhow, it wasn’t so much what Taylor said that as the expression on her face at that moment that spoke of where she found herself. It was only now that she had lost and faced, for the first time, a crisis of future-direction, that the enormous pressure on Taylor to keep excelling became apparent.

Everyone knew of her extreme dedication and everyone knew how important her faith was to her but maybe there was a presumption that after that, it came easy to her.

She just turned up. She boxed. She won. In between Olympic years, her progress was followed by boxing’s year round fraternity but once the Games came along, the country was as sharply tuned into her fights as any major international football or rugby event.

After excelling for so long, the suddenness with which Taylor found herself out of the Olympics, with a big question mark over whether she had just boxed for the last time in the tournament, was about as cruel as sport gets.

Tom Hennigan - Ringside seat? Back on the crime beat more like it

I haven’t paid much attention to the Olympics for over twenty years.

All my childhood fascination with the event ebbed away long ago. I don’t think I watched even a minute of the London Games.

So I was curious to see what the Rio edition would be like. Checking back in with an old friend from childhood. I was looking forward to seeing some of the odder Olympic sports up close and expecting that as during the World Cup Brazilians would get over their latest case of bad vibes and throw a party.

But it didn’t quite work out that way. Covering the Olympic Council of Ireland ticket controversy meant I got to see very little sport.

Instead of the joys of weight-lifting and synchronised swimming the two weeks was increasingly spent running around courthouses, police stations and hotel lobbies while battling against the city’s precarious logistics whether transport or telecommunications, increasingly terrified about how astronomical my next mobile phone bill is going to be.

The sport was always on in the background but my sense was that many cariocas didn’t engage with the event like Londoners four years ago.

All the empty seating in the venues reflected this. Maybe if Brazil had had more medal prospects it would have been different. But there is a reason it doesn’t.

Brazil is a mono-sporting culture. Even though it is not so good at it as it used to be this is football country. Maybe like the organisers hope, hosting the Olympics will spark wider interest in minority sports.

But I suspect from today the sports channels here will go back to padding out hours of programming time with replays of three-day old second division football matches rather than trying to nurture along any toehold the Olympics might have given hockey or fencing in the national consciousness.

The International Olympic Committee probably doesn’t care. The event looked pretty good on telly and that is probably all this very well-heeled non-profit cares about given that telly is where the loot comes from.

It leaves behind a city that became more socially unjust because of its efforts to meet the demand of the Olympic Family and which is now stuck in a bankrupt state that will struggle to pay the wages of public employees from today.

Nothing against the Olympics if that is your thing but for me this was the wrong event in the wrong place at the wrong time. Covering a grubby Irish scandal at it wasn’t leaving much opportunity for changing that opinion. The best thing about it for me? It’s finally over.

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