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Tokyo Olympics: Cathal Dennehy – For Irish athletes, just being there is an achievement the way things are

The beatings will continue until Irish athletes improve – that’s the harsh reality at the midway point of the Olympic athletics programme, which has seen many walk off the track in Tokyo with a mixture of dejection and disillusionment.

ome were simply unlucky. Some let the occasion get to them. Some actually turned in the performance of their lives. Others just aren’t talented enough to make an impact here, and no amount of high-performance coaching or visits to the Sport Ireland Institute will change it.

And that’s okay, too. Not everyone can be a medallist, a finalist – not at altitudes this high.

Any group-think, easy-way-out narrative when dissecting how athletes are faring in Tokyo tends to miss the point, condensing a vast and complex web into a simple act of confirmation bias. Look for the positives among the Irish and you’ll find plenty. Look for the negatives and you certainly won’t go hungry.


If it wasn’t clear before, this is an unforgiving, ruthless sporting stage, one that has chewed up and spat out the ambitions of many, often sending these young men and women through the mixed zone in floods of tears and out into the empty space of self-critique that awaits beyond.

On RTÉ yesterday Peter Collins hit Sonia O’Sullivan with a fair but challenging statement: “We had a week at the aquatics centre where Irish swimmers went out and, okay, we had one finalist, but we also had people breaking national records and achieving personal bests, but our track athletes haven’t done that so far.”

O’Sullivan suggested the length of time Irish athletes had been stationed at the holding camp in Fukuroi had played a role, the potential cabin fever leaving them off-kilter.

Anyone who’s been there, done that and got the medals she has deserves to be listened to, though it’s hard to see how what was – by all accounts – a tranquil and enjoyable holding camp could have caused some of the under-performances we witnessed.

I think what we’re really seeing on the track this week is an enlightenment of how far down the pecking order Ireland is on the global athletics scene. It’s not that there’s been a bunch of collective meltdowns, just that a lot aren’t running at their absolute best. But that’s the norm for other countries too – they’re called lifetime bests for a reason.


With the mixed relay, Thomas Barr and Eilish Flanagan aside, the proliferation of forgettable runs is likely a by-product of how hard many of them had to work to qualify.

The four Irish competitors in the 800m races had to traipse here, there and everywhere in recent months to try to secure a place via their world ranking. Some were punched out before the opening bell.

When it came to those truly capable of getting near the medals, the Irish chances could be whittled to two: Barr and Brendan Boyce, and both of them were long shots.

Boyce will compete in the 50km race walk on Thursday night Irish time, while Barr was always a 50-50 chance to make the eight-man final. Were it not for him clattering the seventh barrier, he would have done it.

In oppressive heat and humidity, Eilish Flanagan set a six-second personal best in the 3000m steeplechase heats, while elsewhere most of the names and faces cut a similarly frustrated look.

Three medals from the first week via rowing and boxing was always going to set the athletics team up for a relative fall amongst those who treat the difficulty level as equal.

But comparisons between medals won in such sports and in athletics are virtually pointless. Rowing is not global, amateur boxing is not professional.

Athletics is rivalled only by football in terms of global reach, the geographical spread of competitors who will walk away with medals here bearing that out.

It’s a sport with a hold in the world’s poorest countries to its richest, popular at underage level in just about all of them. That results in a funneling of talent that is far wider at its base, the distillation more concentrated at its peak.

For better or worse, Ireland is a country where a large swathe of potential talent for international sports is absorbed by a sport only played domestically, and where our Olympic athletes have volunteer coaches and are mostly working part-time or full-time jobs while trying to keep up with professionals.

Every Thomas Barr that comes along, every Sonia, every Derval, has had the good fortune to both win the genetic lottery of talent required for a ticket to this show and they have the ruthless will to bring it to full bloom. It’s worth remembering only one of that trio has an Olympic medal, a silver one, and she’s likely the greatest Irish sportsperson of all time.

For Irish athletes, just being there is an achievement. The way things are, going much further is almost a miracle.

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