Sonia O’Sullivan: Katie Taylor will relish the doubt
Olympic gold medallist has not had to deal with same level of attention in build up to Rio
Katie Taylor leads the Ireland team into the stadium during the opening ceremony for the Baku 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan. Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images
Every four years it seems the opening ceremony gets more lavish and intricate, and it will be interesting to see what Rio will deliver, or at least how it is portrayed ahead of the competition itself. It can sometimes set the tone, although the real anticipation, at least for the athletes, is of course for the actual events.
I have been to five Olympics and never once watched the opening ceremony from start to finish. In fact, it still amazes me that they are the most expensive tickets to avail of. I did take part, twice, and in Sydney I was asked to carry the Irish flag, which was a great honour.
But like most things, for me, I don’t really want to be involved unless there is a purpose or reason to be there. So I won’t be in Rio. Instead, I’ll be watching from the RTÉ studios in Dublin, analysing the performances of the track and field athletes. I don’t have any direct connection with any athlete in Rio, and as a former Olympic athlete I wouldn’t be much of a tourist when it came to hanging around the Olympics.
Because the opening ceremony takes place on the opening night of the Olympics and the track and field events don’t start until the second week, many athletes either decide or are advised not to take part. It is more important to stick to the normal routine as much possible, and avoid any major distraction or disruption.
After all, the opening ceremony is the opposite of everything an athlete would choose to do a few days before going out to perform on the greatest sporting stage in the world.
I remember in Sydney, when I accepted the role of flag-bearer, planning as much as possible in order for it to fit into my training schedule. It was obviously going to be a late night with a lot of standing around.
Generally the athletes are told to meet a good few hours before the opening ceremony begins, are then brought to a holding zone, and a while after that are called into the Olympic Stadium for the parade of nations.
In Sydney, we were brought to a big indoor stadium with rows of seats, as if we about to watch a show, only there is nothing at all to watch.
At least once the teams were called into the stadium after the Olympic flame was ignited, we could just walk back to the athletes village, certainly on a bit of a high after the energy inside the stadium, but hoping to be in bed by at least 1am.
What was nice about Sydney was the fact the athletes’ village was so close to the stadium; there was no waiting around for buses, and it was exciting to see the Olympic Stadium every morning after you woke up.
I remember as well there was a lot of fussing about the parade uniform that each athlete had to wear, and especially whether the shoes were going to be comfortable enough for all that standing around. I actually ended up wearing my own shoes in Sydney, just to be sure. I also chose a men’s green jacket, as I wasn’t overly enamoured by the mustard- coloured top provided for the women on the Irish team. Funny thing is, I don’t know of many athletes who have ever worn their parade uniform again, except maybe decades later when trying to impress someone, or to see if it still fits.
Then four years ago in London, as chef de mission to the Irish team, I again walked in the opening ceremony, and it’s certainly a lot better not to have to worry about competing a few days later.
Katie Taylor was chosen to carry the Irish flag in London, and I know it was a huge honour for her, and huge for the world of women’s boxing as well, to finally be a part of the Olympics.
As well as carrying the flag for Ireland, as the best women’s boxer in the world Katie was also carrying the flag for the newest Olympic sport, and not many people get to say that.
It certainly felt like all eyes were on Katie in London, as she was expected to win gold, which of course she duly delivered. I was very impressed with how relaxed Katie was during the opening ceremony, given the pressure on her. She was there with a purpose but after fulfilling her role was able to make a swift exit back to the village without too much fuss.
There doesn’t seem to be the same attention on women’s boxing, or indeed on Katie this time around. Maybe it’s because golf has proved a bit of a distraction, as the latest addition to the Olympic programme this time, as well as keeping fears over the Zika virus front and centre.
Katie has also had a mixed build-up to these Olympics, but still, has worked quietly the past few months since securing qualification. It seems to me that the boxers, more than most sports, can work behind closed doors: track and field athletes certainly feel the need to showcase their best in the lead up to the Olympics.
It’s clear as well that Katie will have things a little more difficult in Rio, given her recent defeats, but I’m sure she will relish the uncertainty that comes with that, and will know in her own mind what she is capable of producing. It’s the chance to prove exactly how good she is.
Women’s boxing has certainly become more established since London, and more countries see this as a sport that can be targeted to meet medal quotas. It will continue to grow, similar to when the women’s pole vault and steeplechase were added to the Olympics – they are now two of the most interesting events on the track and field programme.
There has been a lot of negativity in the build-up too, with so many issues being played out in the media, not least the Russian track and field athletes being banned, while now some sports are allowing Russian athletes to compete. That has certainly been dividing opinions and may well cost these Olympics some of its audience.
As much as there is that apprehension, I still feel there’s a side to the Olympics that will ultimately win people over, and once the competition begins, we will all be drawn into supporting our athletes, picking our favourites, willing them on to produce performances worthy of the Olympics.
That’s because the true spirit of the Olympics will always shine through. Over the next 16 days, we get to witness the most basic and fundamental essence of sport and competition, and we will all find something to reflect the true meaning and value of the Olympics in these turbulent times for sport.