Ireland’s greatest sporting week? — August 2012
THE ExCel Arena was more akin to a cauldron than a sporting venue.
And when Brian Kerr spotted Eamonn Coghlan, they were both flushed from the sauna-like heat.
Not just from the heat, though. What they’d just witnessed had lit the spark in both men’s eyes.
Kerr and Coghlan embraced, and shot the breeze.
They’ve been friends since growing up opposite each other on the same road in the Dublin suburb of Drimnagh.
Coghlan, at his peak, was one of the best middle-distance runners in the world.
Kerr has given his life to football, making his mark at both underage and senior level.
But they talked not of running or football.
Instead, only one name was on their lips. Katie Taylor.
This has been one of the most extraordinary Olympic Games of all.
It’s made us all fall in love with London — one of the world’s great cities — all over again.
And there is an argument that Irish sport has never had a greater week.
Yes, the shock of the new and the euphoria of Italia ‘90 was something both unique and special.
But the past few days have been an assault on all five senses.
If your eyes didn’t well up when Taylor’s right hand was raised aloft on Thursday, then you have no soul.
What we are left with mostly is an extraordinary surge of the blood. Irish blood.
Experience is not what happens to a boxer going about their business from season to season.
Experience is what they do with what happens to them. And Taylor had the patience that comes with lessons hard-learned.
It is impossible to quite quantify the time and the effort and the will that went into that perfectly realised statement of ambition under fire.
Irish sport has enjoyed plenty of great days — and plenty of them have been since the turn of the Millennium.
But many of the greatest days carried the weight of a question-mark with them.
Did Coghlan’s World Championship in 1983 atone for two fourth place finishes at the Olympics?
Sonia O’Sullivan had been through the mill so much that her silver at Sydney in 2000 thrilled her to the core but an athlete of her calibre should have been an Olympic champion.
Then there were the ‘triumphs’ tainted by allegations of doping. Too many of them, far too many.
That is why the essential honesty of Taylor’s astonishing bravery and march to destiny is so intoxicating.
Sometimes you have to go into the very entrails of a performance to find its deepest force and when you do that, with the sight and thunder of the action still filling your
head, what do you find?
The triumph of the will of a young woman from Bray.
Katie Taylor subverts all our out-dated stereotypes. A shy and reserved Christian, she is still as tough and as mean and competitive as any ghetto kid.
But this Olympics hasn’t just been about the golden girl.
Billy Walsh, — with his boxer’s nose, quick wit and hurler’s heart — has moulded another superb team of male boxers.
Three of them will stand on the podium for a second successive Games.
Eight years ago, we remember Walsh helping out in Amir Khan’s corner for his Olympic final with Mario Kindelan in Athens.
Andy Lee — Ireland’s only boxer at those Games — had gone out early, so Walsh was at a loose end and Team GB asked him to give them a dig-out.
These days, there’s no chance of the Wexford man having any free time on his hands in the second week of an Olympics.
You’d wonder does he ever get to sleep or eat, given all the work — including video analysis and statistical breakdowns — that he puts in.
It hasn’t just been about the boxers either.
Given the euphoria over Taylor’s gold, it’s easy now to forget how close Annalise Murphy came to stading on the podium.
The pictures of her crying her eyes out in Weymouth after finishing fourth were hard to take.
In social terms, boxing and sailing could hardly be further apart, but Irish Sailing’s High Performance Director looked to Walsh and his crew for inspiration.
“Boxing is a sport that delivers medals. If you look at their trajectory, they started getting medals at Europeans, the Worlds,’’ he said.
“They started to consistently deliver across their programme.
“That’s where the other sports want to be. The fact that we have a sport like that in Ireland, we all aspire to what they have delivered.”
Cian O’Connor got a couple of breaks, both to get to London in the first place, and to get into the showjumping final.
But he has always been a man for the big occasion and his bronze shouldn’t be overlooked.
Whether O’Connor should be on the Ireland team at all, given his ban in 2004, is a complicated debate and one with no easy answers.
But there is a strong case that, as in most walks of life, everyone deserves a second chance.
Ireland have over-achieved, by any gauge you want to use at these Olympics.
Infostrada is a company that, among other things, predicts the final medal table at the Games.
Usually, its predictions are uncannily accurate.
They are based on a host of different factors — from population size, to investment, to infrastructure to past performances.
Infostrada figured Ireland would get two medals — gold for Katie Taylor and bronze for John-Joe Nevin.
with two days to go, the real tally stands at five.
And no-one should discount the chances of race walkers Rob Heffernan and Olive Loughnane pulling something out of the bag today.
Inevitably, there have been others who have under-performed, with excuses over illness and injury problems coming from some swimmers and track athletes, in particular.
One of the first things Walsh did when becoming head coach was eliminating the culture of excuses.
Stand tall and get on with it. And no-one stood taller this week than the great Katie Taylor.