Sonia O’Sullivan: Not every athlete that lines up has a chance to win

We must keep things in perspective as we cheer our Olympic athletes on

Airport operations crew  waiting for Olympic athletes and officials to arrive on a flight  at Narita international airport in  Chiba, Japan. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Airport operations crew waiting for Olympic athletes and officials to arrive on a flight at Narita international airport in Chiba, Japan. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

 

First years, then weeks and now only days, the wait and level of anticipation building towards these rescheduled Tokyo Olympics has certainly been like no other. It’s also within grasp of the Irish athletes already arriving to the holding camp in Fukuroi City, adjusting to the time change and extreme weather expected in Tokyo once the games of the 32nd Olympiad get started in just eight days’ time.

It’s difficult to believe we are finally on the eve of the Tokyo Games, and yet when you look back on all that has gone before this year it all seems possible. Just last weekend the Wimbledon Championship, with full capacity crowds on Centre Court for the finals, concluded on Sunday afternoon in southwest London, with Novak Djokovic taking his sixth men’s title victory in front of a rapturous audience.

Then just a few hours later there was the postponed Euro 2020 final, where Italy overcame England in another of those cruel penalty deciders in front of 60,000 people.

It doesn’t all add up, however, when you see a scattering of spectators at the Diamond League athletics meeting in Gateshead two days later.

The Wimbledon fans were all scrambling together for photos, while the football supporters were also wrestling each other in the stands at Wembley: it would make you forget that only now for the second summer in a row things are opening up and once again an attempt at normality.

Yet all these scenarios contradict each other: look at the messages being sent out across the world and the pictures we see coming back of athletes in Tokyo travelling in small groups, all wearing masks in photos, yet they are all vaccinated and not mixing with people outside their circles.

It’s a common thread that has been evolving and changing over the past year while riding the pandemic wave that ebbs and flows yet follows similar patterns all over the world. The rules and guidelines are never consistent: they are changing all the time, and different rules for different events can be frustrating when you see life as normal in some countries and more restrictive and slower to change in others.

Different views

It also makes me wonder is it all about perception, interpretation and judgement; three words that you could use across many recent events. Individually people will have different views and understanding yet collectively it’s been the perception that has led the way. Especially when things just don’t add up, and if you look around in a rational way just simply make no sense.

These three words are also important when viewing and analysing sport in an evolving world: you must always think before you speak, and realise that not everything is taken lightly, especially the throw-away comments from the sofa when you don’t really know the full story, just the view on the screen in front of you.

Once again all this will be evident in and around the Olympics. You see it all the time, the critical analysis and comments that athletes have to deal with, tolerate and put into perspective when it would probably be best if they could be spared the wrath of the keyboard warriors.

There is no doubt that at Euro2020, Ireland had an emotional connection without having a team to support; when England played Germany, when England played Denmark in the semi-final, and in the final against Italy. The perception by so many was that all Irish people would support Italy, and probably most did. Who didn’t let out a shriek and jump up when Italy equalised in the 67th minute?

For others it simply brought the game alive and meant it wasn’t all over after the second minute of play – and what drama unfolded all the way to the penalties when the emotional connection was back again and this time it all became a bit more personal.

It just didn’t seem fair that the responsibility of the last kick of the game lay in the hands of 19-year-old Bukayo Saka. The winning and losing of the game came down to this, and it just didn’t feel right that it would all end in that moment.

You can only look back and think what if and if only, and then the winning and losing is almost lost because it becomes personal again when you see the pain and hurt and fear in Saka’s eyes. How do you explain something like that? Or try to understand how the player or athlete must pick up the pieces and start again, so close but yet so far.

When you make that emotional connection it takes away the hard critical winning and losing analysis. There is a grey area that highlights the unpredictability of sport, and those split-second decisions that you wish you could go back and start again.

Best in the world

Over the next few weeks our Irish Olympic athletes will grace the TV screens, the excitement and exhilaration of making Tokyo will be put aside as athletes line up against the best in the world. They will not be short of expectation to deliver results and maybe even a shiny medal to bring home.

The reality is that often the expectations are much greater than the reality, and we must remember that and keep things in perspective as we cheer our athletes on.

This will be the largest Irish team ever to take part in the Olympics, across 19 sports, but we need to be able to differentiate between the athletes that are taking part and those that are competing at the highest level.

The perception is often that every athlete that lines up has a chance to win; this is not the reality and as analysts, coaches and participants there is no shame in keeping your expectations in the realms of reality.

Only if we set realistic targets can we make fair judgements on the results of our athletes across all sports, and interpret the results in a fair analysis.

Outside of the marathons and race-walking events, if we were to have four athletes reach a final on the track it would be a huge success for Irish athletes.

Other than that the measure of success will be related to personal bests and qualifying times; at least matching the performance that got you to the Games will also be deemed a success.

To rise to the occasion and surpass your best result may also be the best one can expect.

If we set out these realistic targets then the measure of success is much clearer across the board, and the interpretation of the results will produce a fairer judgement on the performance of the athletes when they are met after their race and face the questions. It will also be so much easier to share the perspective with all those sitting at home.

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