Tokyo dreaming: Ireland’s Olympics team slowly taking shape

Ireland could send as many as 90 athletes to Japan – an increase on Brazil four years ago

With the golfers to be added, the boxing team to resume their qualification process, judo and badminton to ratify names, swimmers to swim and the rugby players to compete in a final qualifying tournament, the pandemic-frozen list of Tokyo-bound Irish names is far from complete.

But there is anticipation that the 52 officially qualified will grow to 80 names and, if rugby can squeeze in, as many as 90 Irish athletes will travel to Japan next summer. Four years ago, the Olympic Council of Ireland (now the Olympic Federation of Ireland) fielded a team of 77 athletes, 51 men and 26 women.

For Ireland’s chef de mission there is growing cause for optimism after months of uncertainty, with the Rio tally likely to be exceeded next summer.

“We are looking at a team of around 80 but then if we qualify Rugby sevens we could be well above 80, up to the 90s,” says Tricia Heberle. “We have yet to qualify swimmers, yet to finalise the boxing team. We believe we could maybe get a few more rowers in there. Athletics won’t be finalised until the back end of June next year.”


It has been an unpredictable and precarious year, suddenly becoming a four-year-plus-one cycle with the qualification processes for most sports scattered in the Covid-19 wind.

Ranking lists are on ice while the only Irish team sport qualified –women’s hockey, with players from Belfast, Cork and Dublin – have had to figure out how to train as a team without congregating. Go figure.

At least Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow, Ireland’s four most likely picks, have returned to the altered reality of competing on the professional golf circuits.

“Sports do a great job in creating perspective and focusing the athletes on the reality of the big picture, which is that once the Games were postponed it impacts on everyone,” says Heberle. “Everyone is impacted. You just have to maintain that perspective.”

Taekwondo, gymnastics and badminton are punching through, while it is the first time a full equestrian team has qualified. Rhys McClenaghan, a specialist on the pommel horse, has also emerged as one of the best gymnasts in the world.

Jack Woolley is ranked among the top taekwondo fighters, while judo has three athletes, Ben and Megan Fletcher and Nathon Burns, on the qualification journey.

“What has impressed me since Rio is we now have a variety of sports winning medals,” says Heberle. “I look at gymnastics, at equestrian. Look at Jack Woolley in taekwondo. We look at a range of sports we wouldn’t think we’d be producing medals in. Look at the last three years of rowing and the consistency of them medaling in major competitions.

“I think it gives the whole system a bit of confidence and it becomes part of the culture that yeah, anything is possible and we need to work hard and compete with the best in the world. We don’t have to see ourselves as disadvantaged and we don’t always have to see ourselves as the underdog.”

To date, International Olympic Committee (IOC) qualification standards or quotas have been met by 52 Irish athletes. The list below has more than 52 names. This is because swimmer Darragh Greene is included as he has achieved the "A" time for Tokyo. But the criteria set out by Swim Ireland states that he will only be considered to have achieved the standard if he swims at least the "B" standard, a slower time, at the Irish Open.

Athletics - Seven athletes qualified

Race Walkers: Two qualification times were achieved by Brendan Boyce in the 50km and Alex White over 20km. Marathon: four qualification times were achieved by Fionnuala McCormack, Paul Pollock, Stephen Scullion and Kevin Seaward. Track & Field: one athlete has so far qualified, Ciara Mageean in the 1500m.

Until the date for achieving times has passed, nobody will be nominated for places. This specifically applies to the marathon, where a maximum of three athletes can compete for one nation. If more than three athletes in each category achieve the qualifying standard, then the national federation selection comes into play.


Qualification is ongoing for athletics and, with rankings frozen due to the pandemic, it is hoped to resume in December. The qualification window for athletics runs right up to the end of June for some events, making the team one of the last sports to be confirmed and announced. Some events, such as the race walk and marathon, can be confirmed earlier, by June 2021.

Non-qualified Irish athletes currently inside the ranking mark for qualification:Leon Reid M 200m currently 32 (56 qualify); Marcus Lawlor M 200m currently 36 (56 qualify); Mark English M 800m currently 36 (48 qualify); Thomas Barr M 400m currently 16 (40 qualify); Alex Wright M 50km Race Walk currently 29 (60 qualify); Brendan Boyce M 20km Race Walk currently 52 (60 qualify); Jason Kenny M 20km Race Walk currently 58 (60 qualify); Ciara Neville W 100m currently 49 (56 qualify); Phil Healy W 200m currently 32 (56 qualify); Michelle Finn W 3,000m SC currently 27 (45 qualify).

Currently outside the ranking mark for qualification: Andrew Coscoran M 1500m currently 48 (45 qualify); Colin Quirke M Discus currently 42 (32 qualify); Sharlene Mawdsley W 400m currently 66 (48 qualify); Nadine Power W 800m currently 59 (48 qualify); Siofra Cleirigh Buttner W 800m currently 64 (48 qualify); Sarah Lavin W 400m currently 57 (40 qualify); Phillipa Rogan W High Jump currently 46 (32 qualify); Kate O'Connor W Heptathlon currently 32 (24 qualify); Anne Marie McGlynn W Marathon currently 86 (80 qualify); Ireland Team W 4x100m currently 24 (16 qualify)

Ireland brought a Track and Field team of nine men and nine women to Rio 2016 with one field athlete, Tori Pen, in the pole vault.

Boxing – one athlete qualified

The European qualifier took place in London last March but was abandoned on day two because of Covid-19 concerns and is to be resumed next year. By the time it had been postponed just one Irish athlete had qualified, Brendan Irvine in the 52kg class.


The sport has undergone a new restructuring, with boxing in the Olympic Games being run by a task force under the IOC rather than the International Boxing Association (AIBA), which continues to have serious governance issues.

Irish boxers have two opportunities to qualify for the games in the European qualifier and the world qualifier. Both Irish male and female boxers will take part in these events. The European event was the one in which Irvine qualified and is scheduled to start again from day three next year. A date has not yet been fixed. Ireland has good prospects such as 2018 world champion Kellie Harrington, who would be expected to qualify.

In Rio, Ireland had a team of seven athletes. Defending lightweight champion Katie Taylor was the lone female boxer with Paddy Barnes (light fly), Irvine (fly), Michael Conlan (bantam), David Joyce (light), Stephen Donnelly (welter), Michael O'Reilly (middle) and Joe Ward (light heavy).

Canoe – one athlete qualified

Liam Jegou was the first Irish athlete to be formally selected for Tokyo, when he qualified in February for the Canoe Slalom C1 event. The France-based 24-year-old was nominated by Canoe Ireland based on his performances across three separate races, including the World Championships.

Originally from Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, Jegou stamped his mark on the international stage, winning silver in the 2014 Junior World Championships and bronze in the 2019 U23 World Championships. He is the second Irish athlete ever to compete in the C1 Canoe Slalom at the Olympic Games, with the only other athlete being Mike Corcoran, who competed in Atlanta 1996.

Canoeing is one of the sports, like sailing, where the boat not the athlete qualifies for the Olympics. Jegou was selected ahead of Robert Hendrick for the one available place, although it was Hendrick who qualified the Irish boat for the Games at the World Championships.


Hannah Craig is hoping to qualify a K1 boat and has one opportunity to qualify the only remaining K1 spot at the European Championships. She competed in London 2012 qualifying via this route.

There are three further qualification opportunities for athletes: the World Championships, the World Cup 2 and the European Championships, with an additional place reserved for the host country. The Tripartite Commission can award a further two positions, and unused places can be reallocated.

Jenny Egan is Ireland's top sprint kayaker; however, her discipline, the K1 5000m, is not an Olympic event. The events that are in the Olympics are the K1 200 and K1 500. Ireland had no canoe athletes at Rio 2016.

Cycling Road – three athletes qualified

The Olympic quota is three athletes, although four have qualified. That’s three road racers, with one of them also competing in a time trial. That means a selection issue, which will be taken next year. The profile of the route is hilly so it is likely to be two climbers and one time trial rider.

Cycling Track – four athletes qualified

The quota is four events and four athletes. There are two madison teams (2x2 riders). One from each of the men’s and women’s team also competes in the omnium event. There are no more opportunities to qualify.


Qualification has ended for Road and Track cycling. The Road Cycling criteria is based on world nation ranking with UCI the year prior to the Games. Some 122 places are allocated to men, 62 for women, with special provisions for highly ranked individuals whose nations do not make the ranking.

Dan Martin, Nicolas Roche and 2020 Tour de France Green Jersey winner Sam Bennett will be considered along with a range of athletes on the Pro-Continental and Continental teams.

On the track the women's team of Lydia Boylan and Lydia Gurley competed in the final race of the UCI Track Cycling Rankings. But the positions will be contested from a squad of athletes including Shannon McCurley and Emily Kay. The men's team of Mark Downey and Felix English also competed in the final race, with Fintan Ryan and Marc Potts also contesting positions.

Martin and Roche competed in Rio 2016, Marin ranking 13th and Roche 29th, with Shannon McCurley competing in the women's kierin track event.

Gymnastics – one athlete qualified

Rhys McClenaghan will compete in the Men’s Pommel, although the nomination and selection process is still to be completed. A genuine medal hope in Tokyo, McClenaghan secured qualification in the pommel following his bronze medal performance at the World Championships in 2019.


There are also male and female athletes in contention in the All Around event with Adam Steele heading up the male side, and Megan Ryan and Emma Slevin in the female competitions.

They have opportunities to qualify at the World Cup and European Championships, with three athletes qualifying out of the FIG World Cup Series and a further two at the European Championships. Ireland had two gymnasts in Rio 2016 including a first female Irish gymnast, Ellis O'Reilly. London 2012 Olympian Kieran Behan also competed in the apparatus and all-around events.

Hockey – 16 athletes qualified

The Irish women's hockey team already qualified with a panel of 16 players with two reserve players on standby. That came about after a two-game series against Canada, which was played on a pop-up synthetic pitch laid over the rugby pitch in Donnybrook and attracted a record crowd of 6,137.

After the two matches ended in scoreless draws, the one Olympic place went down to a penalty shootout which Ireland won. Ireland trailed 3-1 in that shootout but goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran pulled off two stunning saves, while Beth Barr and Chloe Watson scored to send the shootout to sudden death. Roisin Upton then scored from the tightest of angles, while Canada failed to convert their penalty. It will be the first time an Irish women's hockey team compete on the Olympic stage.


The panel of names will not be selected until next year after Ireland take part in a truncated preparation period. There are likely to be some changes made to the squad that reached the final of the World Cup in London in 2018. Ireland drew South Africa, Britain, Netherlands, Germany and India in Group A.

Equestrian – nine athletes qualified

The Dressage team, Show Jumping team and Eventing team will be made up of three riders, three horses and one reserve.

The Eventing team qualified two years ago, winning silver in the 2018 World Equestrian Games in North Carolina. The Irish team of Cathal Daniels, Sam Watson, Padraig McCarthy and Sarah Ennis finished the three Eventing phases of Dressage, Cross Country and Show Jumping on a final score of 93.0, just over one fence behind Britain who took gold on 88.8.

The dressage team made their mark at the 2019 European Dressage Championships in Rotterdam. Anna Merveldt, Judy Reynolds, Heike Holstein and Kate Dwyer finished in seventh place but were second of the eight teams that were chasing one of three places in Tokyo. It is the first time an Irish dressage team has qualified for an Olympic Games.

The jumpers also qualified last year at the 2019 Jumping Nations Cup Final in Barcelona, Spain. Rodrigo Pessoa's team of Darragh Kenny, Peter Moloney, Cian O'Connor and Paul O'Shea got the job done, qualifying a team for the first time since Athens 2004.


All equestrian places have been secured, although the names of the individuals have not yet been announced. It is the first time in Olympic history that three Irish teams have qualified, although, in Rio 2016 one dressage, Judy Reynolds, and one jumper, Greg Broderick, were added to the Irish squad of Clare Abbott, Jonty Evans, Mark Kyle and Padraig McCarthy. This was by virtue of results in the individual FEI Olympic rankings: a top-six placement outside the continental selection in dressage and a top finish from North Western Europe in jumping.

Modern Pentathlon – one athlete qualified

Natalya Coyle has qualified for the Open women's event in the five disciplines: shooting, fencing, equestrian, swimming and running. She made the mark at the European Modern Pentathlon Championships in Bath, England last year. The 28-year-old from Meath finished eighth on the day and fourth among those eligible for Olympic qualification.


Thirty-six places are available in each of the men's and women's events and up to two athletes from a National Olympic Committee in each event. The remainder of the places can be achieved through the world rankings, where six places are available.

Sive Brassil, who finished 16th at the event in Bath where Coyle qualified, is currently ranked 34, and Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe is ranked at 23. Coyle is currently ranked below Brassil at 42.

In Rio 2016 Ireland qualified two modern pentathletes. London 2012 Olympian Lanigan-O’Keeffe claimed one of the eight available Olympic places with a first-place finish at the 2015 European Championships. Coyle was granted an invitation from the governing body, UIPM, to compete in the women’s event for the second time as one of the next-highest ranked and not yet qualified athletes.

Rowing – seven athletes qualified

A record number of four Irish boats have qualified. A Women's Single scull was qualified by Sanita Puspure as 2019 world champion; a Women's Pair was qualified by Aileen Crowley and Monika Dukarska, who finished 11th in the 2019 world championships.

The Men's Lightweight double scull was qualified by Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy as world champions in 2019; The Men's double scull was qualified by Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne by finishing second in the 2019 world championships.


Rowing is targeting two more boats in the European qualifying regatta next year. In the Women’s Four there are two places available and in the Women’s Lightweight Double there are also two places.

In rowing the boat qualifies so in the Men’s Lightweight double scull, although qualified by O’Donovan and McCarthy, three others – Gary O’Donovan, Shane O’Driscoll and Jake McCarthy – will be contesting for a place. In the Women’s Pair there is a large squad of athletes who will also look to qualify a Women’s Four boat.

Brothers Gary and Paul O'Donovan won the silver medal in Rio 2016, where Puspure, Sinead Lynch and Claire Lambe also competed.

Sailing – one athlete qualified

Rio Olympics silver medal-winner Annalise Murphy has been nominated to compete in the Laser Radial class on the strength of her 12th-place finish in February's Women's World Championship in Melbourne. Initial plans had Murphy competing against teammates Aoife Hopkins, Aisling Keller and Eve McMahon across three regattas, the World Championships along with events in Palma, Spain and Hyéres in France.

The pandemic, however, forced the cancellation of the latter two events and the decision was made based on results at the World Championships. Murphy finished ahead of Hopkins (40th), Keller (63rd) and McMahon (78th).


There are limited opportunities to qualify two more boats. The 49er (men’s double-handed dinghy) and 49er FX (women’s double-handed dingy) can still qualify at the European Sailing Cup where one place is available. In the Men’s Laser there are two places available at the European Sailing Cup.

Ireland had six athletes in four boats at Rio. Murphy (Laser Radial), Finn Lynch (Men's Laser), Matt McGovern and Ryan Seaton (49er), Andrea Brewster and Saskia Tidey (49erFX).

Swimming – one athlete qualified

Athletes have opportunities to gain qualification by achieving set times at two events. Last year’s 2019 FINA World Championships was one and the Irish Open (now scheduled for 2021) the other. Darragh Greene has the “A” Standard but must swim at least “B” standard in the Irish Open. Greene met the “A” standard in the 100m Breaststroke at the World Championships with a time of 59.82. He now needs to swim the slower time of 1:01.45 at the Irish Open.


All other athletes need to achieve the "A" standard. Brendan Hyland and Shane Ryan have "B" standard times. Ireland also have two relay teams in the world's top 16. The 400m Medley Relay is currently ranked 14th and the 800m Freestyle Relay is ranked 16th. Relays remaining in the top 16 in the world at the end of May 2021 (TBC) will secure places in Tokyo.

Ireland had three swimmers in Rio, Nicholas Quinn (100m, 200m breaststroke), Shane Ryan (50m, 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke) and Fiona Doyle (100m, 200m breaststroke).

Taekwondo - One athlete qualified

Jack Woolley has qualified in the Men's 58kg class. The 22-year-old from Tallaght secured qualification on the basis of his final world rankings in January 2020. Brilliant form in 2019, capped by a silver medal at the European Championships in Bari last November, saw him climb to seventh in the world rankings in his weight division.


The OFI will not officially confirm the selection of athletes until the selection process has been followed, so, officially, Woolley has to be ratified. He is far and away the most successful and highly ranked taekwondo athlete in Ireland. There are two available places in the 2021 European Championships. Woolley is the first-ever Irish entry from taekwondo.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times