Tipping Point: Athletes left praying the Tokyo target will finally stop moving

Ireland’s Olympians and Paralympians left hoping big gamble will pay off in the end

Ciara Mageean became the first Irish woman  to go under two minutes for 800 metres last Friday night. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Ciara Mageean became the first Irish woman to go under two minutes for 800 metres last Friday night. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

The weary trudge through the sports desert is getting a little easier as the weeks pass and the occasional familiar watering hole appears. It was good to be back at a hurling match last week, just as it will be good to sit down and watch the year’s first golf major next week. The wrapping up of the English football season has been much more fun than expected. Even the dear old Gas Cooker starts in The Crucible on Friday.

Sport bends towards the light. Even in a normal year, what Ciara Mageean did last Friday in Switzerland would have you punching the air. Winning a race straight out of lockdown is one thing, breaking an Irish record is another. But becoming the first Irish woman ever to go under two minutes for 800 metres despite five months of global disruption is some statement. It fairly knocks the spots off the wonky sourdough you baked back in April.

Today would have been the first Monday of the Olympics. Maybe you’d have set the alarm and got up in the middle of the night to watch the hockey women play the Dutch in a rematch of the World Cup final. A couple of the boxers would have been in the ring today and the rowers would have all been on the water by now and got a sense of where their week is going. The Laser Radial races would be hotting up out in Enoshima Harbour. And beyond all the parochial stuff, The Olympics Would Be On.

Ireland was shaping up to send a team of between 50 and 60 athletes. They’d have been going with wildly varying prospects but they’d have been going all the same. Living out the one fortnight of their life that is certain to feature in their obituary or wiki entry when the time comes.

But of course, it isn’t a fortnight at all. Depending on their sport, it’s a week or a few days or a morning session or four two-minute rounds or the 20.3 seconds it takes to run 200 metres of the track. Make it 20.4 and it will be the only running you get to do. Thanks very much for coming all this way, you are now an ex-Olympian. Enjoy the rest of your life.

Maybe the truest quote I ever got out of a sportsperson came a few months out from the Beijing Olympics. I went to Mullingar to meet up with Derek Burnett, the trap shooter. He had finished a couple of places out of the final in Athens, nailing 119 clays out of a possible 125 over two days of qualifying. The margins were tiny – two more clays and he’d have made the final, three more and he’d have gone into that final in silver medal position.

So for four years afterwards, he chipped away at everything, trying to find those extra two clays. He worked with a sports psychologist who got him into the habit of wiping his feet on the mat under him after every clay, symbolically cleaning off the previous shot whether it was good or bad. He kept an ammunition business ticking along to go with his €20k grant from the Sports Council. He spent months at a time outside Ireland, training in Italy where the weather would better replicate the conditions of an Olympic event. He did it all in his mid-30s, long after you’re supposed to have put away childish things.

“It’s a fucking big gamble to take with your life,” he said that day in the Lakelands Centre out on the Kilbeggan Road. Four months later in Beijing, he cratered. He missed six clays in the opening day of qualifying, exactly as many as he had across the two days in 2004. He finished with a score of 110, nine fewer than in Athens. He’d spent four years chasing two extra clays and ended up losing a heap more along the way.

Olympians and Paralympians are mad like that. In some respects, it’s not a complete surprise that Ciara Mageean came out and went under two minutes last Friday, something Irish women have been taking realistic shots at for around 50 years. If you’re the type of person whose entire existence is about putting your life on hold for one event every four years, a little dose of lockdown life isn’t going to feel all that different.

Still, for that coterie of 50-plus Irish athletes who would have been in Tokyo this week, it has to be a bizarre feeling. This was supposed to be it, the thing that everything else was leading to. If the four years were contained in an egg-timer, this was meant to be the final grain of sand slipping down the glass, the one that every grain before it was supporting. But instead here they are, hunkering down for another 12 months.

For them, the gamble is bigger than it has ever been. Not just in respect of an extra year being tacked on, which is a huge ask in itself. But also in the fact that there’s no guarantee the games will go ahead in 2021 anyway. They’re recalibrating and shooting themselves at a target that might very well not exist when they reach it.

The mixture of blind faith, self-deception and mania that goes into choosing to do that with your life is something that will never not be impressive. They’re surely not doing it for the fame either – Burnett told a story about arriving back from winning gold at a team world championships one year to find an RTÉ camera crew in the airport waiting. Not for them, but for an Irish dancing team that had come second somewhere.

No, they do it because it’s who they are and it’s what’s in them. A year from now, you’ll flick on the TV and (hopefully) come across one of them doing their thing and you’ll shout for them and maybe wonder a bit at how they got there. Whatever it is, they’re doing it today, taking that fucking big gamble with nobody watching.

More power to them.

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