RTÉ sports’ Cliona O’Leary bowled over by an ‘Olympics of contrasts’

Deputy head of television sport says event should never have been held in Rio

Cliona O’Leary with rowing silver medalists Gary and Paul O’Donovan from Skibbereen.

Cliona O’Leary with rowing silver medalists Gary and Paul O’Donovan from Skibbereen.

 

The tranquillity of Drimoleague might always have come as a welcome respite from a busy working life in Dublin, but Cliona O’Leary will hardly have welcomed a visit home more than the one she will enjoy this week with her husband and two children after the most frenetic month of her career.

As RTÉ’s deputy head of television sport she led the national broadcaster’s Rio-based team and its coverage of the Olympic Games, leaving the city earlier this week with mixed emotions about the whole experience.

From the joy of covering the successes of the O’Donovan brothers and Annalise Murphy, to the drama of the Michael O’Reilly and Pat Hickey stories, to the overwhelming sense that the city should never have hosted the Games in the first place.

“The contrasts,” she says, “the whole Olympics was about contrasts.”

O’Leary, appointed to her position in 2010 after working in numerous sports-related roles in RTÉ since 1997, headed a team of 41 in Rio, nine of them women – herself, her deputy Eilis Boland (head of production resource TV), Anna Egan (broadcast co-ordinator), Erin Barnett (production dept assistant), Gráinne Cordian (editor) and four ‘front of house’ team members, Clare McNamara, Evanne Ní Chuilinn, Jacqui Hurley and Radió na Gaeltachta’s Gearóidín Nic an Iomaire.

Equally valuable, she says, was Rio resident Sarah O’Sullivan, a journalist from Galway whose local contacts and knowledge proved to be a significant help when it came to coverage of the Kevin Mallon and Pat Hickey stories. 

The best laid plans and all that. O’Leary would work two days ahead of the schedule planning each day, but those breaking news stories regularly scuppered those plans.

“You wouldn’t want to have a nervous disposition,” she laughs, “every morning we woke up to another news story. And dropping one of our four crews on the news story meant taking it away from something else – we were primarily there to cover the sport, so it was a juggling match. It’s hard enough to cover 77 athletes . . .”

With so much happening, O’Leary’s forays from the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) were rare enough, catching glimpses of Stephanie Meadows, Shannon McCurley and Oliver Dingley in action before returning to the “bunker”, but for someone steeped in sport it was a thrill.

Gaelic football (she played once for the Cork minors), gymnastics and volleyball were her passions growing up, she lists “praying for the [male] Cork footballers” as one of her pastimes. “It’s fabulous to be working in something you have a passion for, there is a joy every morning going in to do your job.”

And the O’Donovans, Paul and Gary, provided the greatest joy of all. “They were unbelievably giving of their time and energy after their final, and they were glued to their phones looking at the reaction of the Irish people. It just meant so much to them. Being around them and witnessing it all was a privilege.”

The transport problems in Rio made the job a little less joyous at times. “It was chaotic, an absolute mess,” she says, “I just think it was a missed opportunity generally for Rio, they never really got it together in time. They literally put in a coffee shop in the IBC on the last day, when we were leaving. That’s more money wasted. The same with the signage for venues. Security was an issue too. At times it was rigid for the sake of it, and at other times it was dangerously lax.”

When she arrived for work every morning she was reminded of the cost of the Games, in every sense, to the people of Rio.

“Favelas bulldozed, people displaced, all for the Olympic Games? And what’s going to happen after? They don’t have a bean and venues were built that will serve no use afterwards . . . you can understand the anger from the locals’ point of view. That’s why all the venues were empty, there was no atmosphere at anything.”

“What in the name of God was the IOC doing taking these Olympics and landing them in a country where they need their money for other things? The Olympics should never have been there. I will never forget where that favela had been knocked down. The lack of sanitation, the rivers black, the stink. And all you could think was this money would have been so much better spent on improving the conditions people there live in. There are millions of people living below the poverty line out there, and then you walked through the Olympic Park and you saw the affluence. Two worlds colliding.”

“When we were leaving for home after the closing ceremony, there was a storm blowing, it was freezing cold, it looked like it was Rio wanting to get rid of us. It just felt like that.”

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