Tokyo 2020: Kellie Harrington goes out to make the last mile a golden one

The mixed emotions of the last fortnight in Tokyo could end with a historic high on Sunday

The last weekend of the Olympic Games and people are coming up for air after more than two weeks below the surface. From the steamer of the golf course at Kasumigaseki Country Club to the burning wind of the Sea Forest Waterway rowing venue in Tokyo Bay and now Kellie Harrington, Irish athletes have been breaking new ground, doing it with a sense of belonging.

Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy's breathless domination of lightweight rowing was mood personified. Lads from Skibbereen saying relax, chill, placing themselves at the apex of the sport and holding their ground no less than equals.

Messaging to everyone with their insouciant take on pressure and expectations or where a rowing gold medal fits into their life thinking, at the back of it they were telling everyone ‘see what can be done’.

They made success familiar. They invited it into camp, showed the athletes how it looked and behaved and told them success belongs to Irish athletes as much as anyone.


The women’s four snatching the bronze medal from a stunned British crew and breaststroker Mona McSharry becoming the first Irish swimmer since 1996 to make an Olympic final and the Irish team had something resembling momentum flashing through last week and over the weekend into this week, when boxing and for a while golf and diving took the baton.

"We had the hockey girls staying in our apartment. It was a great environment," said boxing high-performance director, Bernard Dunne. "I was talking to Tanya [Watson] this morning from diving. First female diver to come to an Olympic Games, get to a semi-final and then finish 15th overall.

“There’s a great buzz around when you have success. However small it is, it breeds more success. Everybody is thriving off each other’s sports. It’s the Irish team and we are all part of it.”

The rowers were a new broom in the mindset closet with their fresh can-do thinking and from the first Irish canvas to touch water the tide rose among the biggest team ever assembled at an Olympic Games

For those who chronicled the Rio experience, leaving behind Christ the Redeemer and the Copacabana Beach with an exhausted cynicism after the arrest, the failed dope test, the crazy refereeing and world champion Michael Conlan hitting bullseye with his profanity-laden attack on the establishment, dampened down, bureaucratic Tokyo has been a return to a path that had been set out by Ireland in London 2012.

Super-hot Tokyo, a strange city partially closed and eerily quiet at night, has been a staging post of sorts, almost a Celtic Olympic revival. That warm wind of the first week carried into the second week with Aidan Walsh adding to the men’s lightweight and women’s four haul but not without its fault lines.

In the seams of good fortune were veins of dejection; Taekwondo's Jack Woolley, Sanita Puspure in rowing, gymnast Rhys McClenaghan and in boxing Emmet Brennan, all of them eloquently demonstrating the Olympics are not always the best moment of your life.

The bronze medal of the four women rowers, Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty was perhaps an even more confident expression of how far rowing has progressed. O'Donovan particularly, freakishly talented and McCarthy were the undisputed world champions and their offensive pose coming in rightly suggested nobody could touch them.

The four were vulnerable to being well placed and outside the medals but they played the buzz word of these Games and ‘converted’ opportunity. In Tokyo conversion, it is the difference between the podium and the plane home.

More than just the O’Donovan-McCarthy partnership, the bronze medal of the four showed that others on the Irish team had also been drinking the Kool-Aid.

"I think there was a little bit more competition stacked in week one as you know, the way the programmes flow," said Olympic Federation of Ireland chief executive Peter Sherrard.

“I think that will be very similar for Paris as well. It very pleasing to see the positive results have continued in particular in sports like boxing, good to see Natalya [Coyle] doing well, the golfers . . . I don’t want to name people because there are a lot of athletes performing to a good level.

“There has been quite a handover of personnel within the village, people coming, people going, people returning home at this point. The thing that’s very positive for me and this is credit to Tricia [Heberle], chef de mission and her team, that the spirit has kept going.

“That spirit, that believing and the support back home they are really feeding off that. So feeding off the team spirit has been very, very good and a belief of the feeling that they can really achieve.”

For some like Shane Lowry the Olympic spirit was with him long before he arrived in Tokyo and he was sharing it with his brother Alan, who was on his bag. A shared experience in totality, Lowry with his millions also chose to share his room with his brother.

For others, like Rory McIlroy, their hearts warmed to something that they admitted afterwards they hadn’t fully understood.

“Look,” said McIlroy. “I’ve made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive, and coming here, experiencing it, seeing, feeling everything that’s going on, not just Olympic golf but the Olympics in general, that sort of Olympic spirit has definitely bitten me and I’m excited about how this week has turned out and excited for the future.”

It was a rare admission from one of the top golfers in the world, unusual to reveal his naivety in such a candid and public way. A cold-hearted professional finding himself settling on the same page as Lowry after a four-day voyage of self discovery, it came more from the Athletes’ Village than the PGA playbook.

Competing for something bigger than personal glory, in his play and in his words McIlroy showed and voiced a comfort in stepping out of the tour bubble into a smaller more intimate world where his actions and play emotionally affected other athletes on his team, athletes who unlike him, didn’t have a purse of $10.5 million to compete for the following weekend.

He came to understand over four rounds of golf and a seven-man bronze medal playoff that his red, bust-a-gut face and his sweat-saturated clothes said something else about the Olympics.

“I’ve never tried so hard in my life to finish in third place,” said McIlroy. “It makes me even more determined going to Paris and trying to pick one [medal] up,” he added before reeling off that the Olympic course in Paris 2023 was in Versailles, while the Athletes’ Village will be located in far away St Denis and it would be problematic to stay in the Athletes’ Village. He had done his homework.

Homework has also been the great under-exposed facility boxing has had with John Conlan and Zaur Antia, the Dubliner, who settled in west Belfast in the 1980s and nurtured his son Michael to a world championship and the great hulking Georgian, who has settled in Bray, Co Wicklow.

Coaching and the talent to send boxers out prepared for the fight they face is always the key to the lock. They never go out to simply fight and Kellie Harrington in the gold medal bout against Beatriz Fereirra on Sunday has been Conlan and Zaur's star pupil.

“Ultimately you are only going to be judged on the performances of the athletes,” says Sherrard. “But one of the things you like to see from a systems point of view is that you are giving yourself the opportunity to medal.

“Obviously you want people to convert those opportunities and convert to medals. But the reality is for every 10 realistic opportunities you probably get three or four.”

As the Games draw to a close over the weekend with golfers Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow still battling as McIlroy and Lowry did but in a much tougher field, Harrington at 31-years-old could make this the most successful Olympics Ireland has ever had.

Never before has the country won two gold medals in two different sports at the same Games. London had five medals but just one of them gold from Katie Taylor and Atlanta had three gold, all of them in swimming.

“In my opinion, we’ve the best coaching team in world boxing, between them, the experience they have, the medal success they have, the relationships they build with the athletes and you can see it in the performance of all seven of our guys out here,” says Dunne of his team.

“Even that young man Brendan [Irvine] down there, he got beat by someone who’s at least a silver medallist.”

Harrington won’t come up for air until after she hears the whack of the clack clack, the stick they beat on the ring, which even in full auditoriums cuts through the noise to the boxers ears. It will indicate her last 10 seconds of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic final.

That’s a good place to be. She said it only a few days ago, when she beat Sudaporn Seesondee in her lightweight semi-final.

“The last mile is never crowded,” said Harrington. Over the last two weeks that is what Irish athletes have again come to know.