Sporting Advent Calendar #16: Irish men’s hockey team bridge long wait for Olympic dream
It had been almost 70 years since any Irish field team had last qualified for Olympic games
Ireland players line up for the national anthems during the qualifying campaign. Photograph: Inpho
Regardless of what statistic you picked, the Ireland wait had been a long one. No field sport had qualified for the Olympic Games since 1948. No hockey side from Ireland had played in an Olympic Games since before World War 1.
The back story of the men’s hockey team was also one of heartbreak. Prior to London 2012 in a tournament hosted by Irish hockey in Belfield, Ireland had one foot in the London Games until the dying seconds of their final game against Korea.
A drilled ball towards the goal and the slightest of touches was enough to KO Irish hopes. It was four years gone and the team didn’t know when they would get another chance.
That fell this year when the squad made a decision not to retrench but kick on from the London failure. A bronze medal in the European Championships in August, another first, and a rich run of form in the World League Olympic qualifying tournament, where Ireland came fifth, left the squad again on the cusp.
The difference this time was it was out of their hands and it fell to another continental qualifier, Oceania, to decide Ireland’s Olympic fate.
It was simple. The world number one side Australia had to beat New Zealand in the Oceania Championships. The thing was Australia were already qualified for Rio and rumours of a young experimental side found their way to Ireland.
The Irish squad gathered in the small dark hours in Belfast watching a feed of the game provided by BBC Northern Ireland. It was no one way traffic but Australia played honestly. This time there was no kinks in the plan, no late scores. Never has a 3-2 Aussie win over the Kiwis been celebrated so hard some 18,000 kilometres away in Dublin. Ireland, who prior to the 1980s were invited to play in Olympics but declined because of political sensitivities on the island, will take their place in Rio on merit for the first time in the history of the sport.