Tokyo 2020: Ireland’s rowing revolution strikes Olympic gold

Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy get just reward for singles sculls domination

The pair became the first Irish rowers in history to claim a gold medal at the Olympic Games, beating Germany in the lightweight double sculls. Video: Reuters

 

It seemed just so that it was Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy streaming past the media tribune underneath a hammering Tokyo sun, more than the nose of their boat in front of the rest of a spread-eagled lightweight sculls field.

A fresh breeze blowing from somewhere over their shoulders out in Tokyo Bay, green Irish singlets shimmering and sweat rolling off their bare shoulders, the two from Skibbereen pulled, it seemed, almost effortlessly to Ireland’s first rowing gold medal and the first Irish Olympic gold since Katie Taylor beat Sofya Ochigava in London nine years ago.

As the two passed just metres out from the finish line, they remained expressionless and lost in the effort, the Germans behind having led for most of the race and now alive to the fact there was little they really could have done against a pair that nobody in the world has been able to beat this year.

In an almost formal gesture after they crossed the line and stepped into history, 27-year-old O’Donovan turned in the boat to his 24-year-old partner and respectfully shook his hand. It was for the first time a handshake of Olympic Champions.

For both rowers it is a circle completed. Fintan McCarthy is a European Champion, World Champion and now Olympic Champion. O’Donovan is twice a European Champion, four times a World Champion and a gold and silver Olympic medal winner and far along the road to becoming Ireland’s most decorated athlete of any sport in any era.

McCarthy is hardly the apprentice, but he is already learning the rowing life skills and competitive mindset that has allowed O’Donovan gain unprecedented success since 2016, when he first won World and European gold. Since then his career has been a plundering of all the most valuable events in the sport.

McCarthy is learning from a sorcerer and O’Donovan with his chic shaman look is beginning to look the part too.

“I was just so confident that we were the fittest we’ve ever been and whatever happens, happens,” said McCarthy taking a page from the O’Donovan playbook of stoicism and philosophical wisdoms. “If we give it our best then it should be good enough to win, and if it’s not, then we gave it our best.

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“Yeah, like I said it’s confidence in our training and preparation rather than confidence in, ‘we’re the best, we’re going to win’, or whatever. I just knew that there’s not much more that we could have possibly done to try and win this event. So whatever happens is a result.”

Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan with their gold medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, at the Sea Forest Waterway, Tokyo. Photograph: Steve McArthur/Photosport/Inpho
Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan with their gold medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, at the Sea Forest Waterway, Tokyo. Photograph: Steve McArthur/Photosport/Inpho

The race was the blueprint the pair has used all season and longer. It didn’t matter that the rest of the world knew it backwards. If the Irish boat could execute and stay in touch until the final 500m, well, they have another gear.

As it happened O’Donovan and McCarthy had a decent start with the Germans rowing to type and bursting from the start line. Ireland settled into third place hitting the 100m mark.

By 500m the Cork partnership were 1.40 seconds behind Germany and inching up all the time. Their move came between 500m and 1000m and by the midway point the German boat had half the lead they had in the previous 500m, a slim 0.62 second advantage.

“I’d say if we didn’t have a perfect start we’d probably have made a good go to win the race as well like,” said O’Donovan. “Like, we row all the time, twice a day every day of the year really, and stuff doesn’t generally go wrong.

“That’s over 700 training a sessions a year, and I’d say once or twice you’d have a mishap so they’re not bad odds really.”

Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty celebrate with their bronze medals. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty celebrate with their bronze medals. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho

It was four minutes into the race when Ireland made their decisive move and the question was whether the German boat could respond. By the 1500m mark the answer came back. Ireland were in front and Germany didn’t, couldn’t react.

From that point on O’Donovan and McCarthy only got stronger with their fixed expressions, a world that few will ever know. They fearlessly cut through the water and flashed past the main stand to the finish in 6:06.43 seconds, Germany 0.86 behind them in the silver medal position.

Neither rower was about to get carried away with their success, another stoic trait of the Skibbereen mindset and counterpoint to their virtuoso domination of the sport.

Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan celebrate after winning gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images
Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan celebrate after winning gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

“They will knock me back down to earth quick enough if I do get carried away,” said O’Donovan. “You just have got to put it into perspective like you know.

“Over the years we would have be going to junior, under-23 and World championships and I have come away from most of them without getting medals.

“Life goes on all the same and you still have the same friends and do the same things in life. It is not the be all and end all of the world. For sure winning is better than not winning don’t get me wrong. But there is not a huge difference.”

With that the fresh faced McCarthy and the mildly anti-heroic character of O’Donovan, hair tied in a bun and an untrimmed wizard beard fade, headed off into the background to gather their belongings.

The team will fly home on Sunday together with one Olympic medal more than they had in Rio. Four women, Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty with bronze, two men with gold, rowing’s rightful reward for their revolution.

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