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Hugo Keenan’s Sevens dream is a fantastic risk to take – only the Olympics has that kind of power

The biggest Ireland team ever will compete at these games – as a society we should be better at finding a way to harness the abilities of the incredible young people we send out to represent us

Watching Keenan grow into his first game back, you couldn’t but be struck, once again, by the uniquely mad pull of the Olympics. Photograph: Martin Seras Lima/Inpho

The South African team looked over at Hugo Keenan and they saw fresh meat. At the rugby Sevens Grand Final tournament in Madrid on Friday, they sized up the Ireland and Leinster fullback upon his return to the game that made him and proceeded to give him the sort of welcome that an intercity express train gives a provincial station.

They aimed the first kick-off directly at Keenan’s wing and when he tried to let it go out on the full, Impi Visser soared over him to keep the ball alive. The officials got it wrong – it should have been an Ireland scrum – but play continued and by the time Ireland touched it again, South Africa went 7-0 up. Whereupon they aimed the restart directly at Keenan again, looking to repeat the trick. Welcome back, Hugo. Let’s see how much of this you remember.

Watching Keenan grow into his first game back, you couldn’t but be struck, once again, by the uniquely mad pull of the Olympics. Keenan is at the end of a season that started with a pre-World Cup camp in the middle of June 2023, itself only three weeks after a crushing Champions Cup final defeat. Now, after a third lost final in a row, he’s facing into a season that he presumably hopes will end with a Lions tour. A little R&R would surely not go amiss.

And yet here he is, throwing himself into a sport he hasn’t played in five years, all for a tilt at an Olympic windmill. One pleasing hip-swivel aside, he was clearly rusty in his first game back. But the Ireland side he has joined is a gutsy, silken-skilled bunch and they produced a stunning late try to prevail by 26-21 in their opening pool game. They are a genuinely exciting prospect for the Olympics.


One among many, more than ever before. It looks certain that Paris will see the biggest Irish team ever to go to the Games. According to the essential @IRLOlympicChase account, we’re up to 113 confirmed qualifiers in 13 different sports. With probable additions to come in boxing, athletics and swimming, as well as possibilities in shooting, modern pentathlon and diving, the Irish contingent could be up around 125 when the torch is lit.

For context, we sent 116 athletes to Tokyo in 2021, 77 to Rio in 2016 and 64 to London in 2012. The rise in Ireland’s fortunes in team sports – hockey and rugby Sevens in particular – has contributed to the beefing out of the numbers. But it’s clear too that all those reviews in the 2000s, all that root-and-branch reform so beloved of the Liveline callers after each Olympics, all of it is working its way through the system.

London 2012 Olympic Games, London, England 12/8/2012 Ireland's Olympic Boxing Medalists Ireland's John Joe Nevin, Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan show off their medals Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

And at the risk of putting a hex on them all, the fruits of it should blossom in Paris. London 2012 saw the most Irish medals at a single Olympics – the five brought home by Katie Taylor, John Joe Nevin, Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan and Cian O’Connor at the time as well as the bronze awarded, four-and-a-half years late, to Rob Heffernan. No Olympic medal is guaranteed but it will be a mild disappointment if that total isn’t equalled or bettered this time around.

So we’re probably looking at the most Irish Olympians so far and possibly, hopefully, the most Irish Olympic medals so far. But there’s a corollary to those numbers as well – Paris will produce the greatest number of disappointed Irish Olympians ever at a single games.

Of the 116 who went to Rio, eight came back with medals – two golds and two bronzes divided between a couple of boxers and six rowers. Another dozen ranked in the top eight in their sport – in showjumping, golf, gymnastics, swimming, boxing and the mixed 400 metre relay. Thomas Barr missed the hottest track final by a single place, Brendan Boyce ground out a brutal 10th in the hardest event in athletics, the 50km walk.

Otherwise, 94 athletes went to Tokyo, did their bit until the guillotine fell and came home without anybody outside their tiny circle making a fuss about them. Some of them maxed out and returned with the best result they could have hoped for. Some of them made a royal mess of their event. All of them had to reckon with the big life question afterwards. Was it all worth it?

The answer isn’t always yes, even for those who find success. Just ask Kenneth Egan, who has spoken at length about his struggles after coming back from Beijing as a newly-minted national hero. Or Nevin, whose Olympic silver medal didn’t prevent him having both his legs broken in an assault in his hometown less than two years after London. You can pour your whole life into something, only to find the world shrugging at you when it’s over.

Hugo Keenan’s ‘brothers’ in Leinster understand his need to chase the Olympic dreamOpens in new window ]

Finding an off-ramp for Olympians is something Irish sport could do better. Irish society, for that matter. Every four years, we send a band of insanely dedicated, uniquely motivated, street-smart young people away to represent us in the biggest event in the world, only to immediately forget they exist when it’s over.

They spend years gathering and binding all the strands of their life tightly together to make it to the Olympic start line and are left to wonder why it all frays when it’s over. We don’t owe them an afterlife, obviously. But it feels like a waste that they’re such a routinely untapped resource.

Hugo Keenan won’t have to worry about any of that for a while yet. He will come back from Paris to Leinster and Ireland set-ups that value him and that hope to get the best years of his career out of him between now and the end of the decade. He’d have done that anyway, Olympics or no Olympics.

Which, in a way, makes it even more admirable that he’s taken a deep breath and jumped off a cliff here. Putting himself out there, maybe looking stupid, exposing his hard-earned reputation as one of Ireland’s best rugby players – he didn’t have to risk any of it.

The Olympics will do that. It’s a shame to leave that sort of energy unharnessed in the people it does it to.