Olympics has a special place in sport

Players 'gutted' over Olympics decision: Mullan

Irish hockey captain Katie Mullan

Richard Bullick

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Richard Bullick

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The miraculous comeback by Alun Wyn Jones to captain the British and Irish Lions so soon after dislocating his shoulder is surely the longest-odds sporting story this weekend.

However, there have been numerous times throughout the pandemic period when few would have wagered much on the Tokyo Olympics actually taking place, albeit a year late.

With Covid-19 still casting a black cloud over these Games, who knows what will happen over the next fortnight, but the opening ceremony is getting underway at the time of writing.

There’s a possibility some outcomes could be a lottery if significant numbers of competitors end up being ruled out of their event by contracting coronavirus at the wrong time.

It’s a pity that these Olympics have to be behind closed doors, with not even local Japanese people able to attend, and you can understand the considerable unease in the host nation.

But you keep everything crossed that things go as smoothly as possible and, for those of us watching from far away, this is still set to be an absolute feast of sport over the next fortnight.

We live in a modern world where everything has to be bigger and better than what went before so it has become the norm for each host city to try and outdo its predecessor.

That often manifests itself in incredibly lavish and spectacular opening ceremonies but, this time, the pandemic context will mean things are somewhat more modest and toned down.

Trying to find a more sustainable basis for staging the Olympic Games is important moving forward for otherwise hosting them can place an almost impossible burden on host cities.

Bidding processes, as we see for football World Cups, can lead to accusations of corruption and bad decisions such as awarding next year’s tournament to unsuitable and dodgy Qatar.

A significant announcement this week was the awarding of the 2032 Olympics to Brisbane on the basis of fairly pragmatic proposals including the use of existing infrastructure.

The lasting legacy of the pandemic, concerns about climate change and other factors will shape the future but, before this, putting on the Olympics had become vast vanity projects.

Sydney at the start of the new millennium set a high bar, but Athens had the heritage appeal four years later and there was no expense spared by the Chinese in relation to Beijing 2008.

However, those of us from this part of the world will always look back on London 2012 with fond nostalgia for many reasons and it is hard to imagine those Olympics being bettered.

My earliest Olympic memories are from Seoul in 1988, getting up during the night for that record-breaking but now best forgotten 100 metres final won by drugs cheat Ben Johnson.

The other highlight, that historic gold medal win by a GB men’s hockey squad which included Ulstermen Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood, thankfully remains untarnished though.

Rowing was always a banker sport for Team GB, with Olympic legends Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent leading the way and our own Alan Green doing the BBC radio commentary.

In Irish terms, for long enough the Olympics meant Sonia O’Sullivan, the great runner who always carried the hopes of a nation but probably didn’t get the rewards she deserved.

Barcelona 1992 was memorable for the boxing gold for Michael Carruth and the silver by Belfast man Wayne McCullough, who was the Irish flag-bearer for the opening ceremony.

One recalls the late Terry Wogan being a big part of the BBC radio coverage from Barcelona but, except for Michael Johnson’s brilliance, little has stayed in the mind from Atlanta 1996.

At Sydney 2000, there was almost unspeakable pressure on Australian runner Cathy Freeman as she carried the hopes of the sports-mad host nation on her shoulders.

The fairytale came true as Freeman won gold in the 400 metres while Denise Lewis followed in the footsteps of our own Mary Peters by becoming Olympic champion in the heptathlon.

Your columnist was involved in tourism at the time and can remember listening to some of the athletics in the car in a layby outside Buncrana on a glorious September morning.

For the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, as chief sports writer for a daily newspaper, it was my privilege to interview competitors from a range of disciplines ahead of those Games.

The list included rower Alan Campbell, boxing Paddy Barnes and cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel and obviously you followed their fortunes with interest thereafter.

There are some fantastic stories out there of incredible commitment and sacrifice from sportspeople who have fought for their dreams well away from the bright lights of fame.

Every time the Olympics comes around, we take an intense but often fleeting interest in a range of sports that tend to disappear off the radar again until the next Games.

That, in part, is thanks to the fantastic coverage we are treated to from modern Olympics and what the BBC served up from London 2012 in particular was quite extraordinary.

It is fascinating to fall for new sports, though our infatuation can be as fleeting as a holiday romance and sadly that almost evangelical zeal tends not to last much beyond the Games.

Naturally we take a particular interest in events featuring someone from this part of the world, or where medals are won by competitors from either Ireland or Britain.

There was great excitement when the 2012 Olympics was awarded to London and this writer was fortunate enough to get an in-depth interview with the chief organiser Seb Coe.

When the Games came around years later, an unforgettable opening ceremony was followed by a fantastic first week of action culminating in Super Saturday at the athletics.

Team GB stars Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah famously won gold in the space of just 44 minutes that evening inside the Olympic Stadium in East London.

Almost like Freeman 12 years earlier, there had been huge pressure on Ennis as the host nation’s poster girl but the heptathlete delivered as another worthy successor to Mary P.

It was my pleasure to meet Ennis at a reception before the 2015 BBC Sports Personality of the Year and, although a superstar, she has a delightfully humble, unassuming manner.

On the Monday of London 2012, it was an honour to be invited into the BBC Good Morning Ulster along with Olympics pioneer Maeve Kyle to discuss the Games so far.

Then it was off to London, where it was a complete privilege watching Ireland’s Katie Taylor win boxing gold in the ExCel Arena where the atmosphere was simply beyond belief.

I’d been lucky enough to have some dealings with Katie over the previous year and, like Ennis, she’s a top sportsperson who in private really lives up to her positive public image.

Walking out of Belfast International on Friday morning, there was a call from Radio Ulster’s Talkback show inviting me to take part in an on-air conversation about Katie Taylor’s future.

It was with the high-profile publicist Max Clifford who had various suggestions about how he could help Taylor capitalise on her success, but I argued he was the last thing she needed.

As a genuine individual with good values and a wholesome image, association with Clifford’s unprincipled publicity-at-all-costs tactics would almost certainly have damaged Katie’s brand.

It was a heated debate but what we didn’t know then was that the disgraced Clifford would die in jail five years later after being convicted of sex crimes against girls and young women.

Taylor had been the official flag-bearer for Team Ireland at those 2012 Olympics but, this time, the IOC are having joint male and female flag-bearers for each competing nation.

This is supposedly to promote equality but is simply politically correct nonsense which cheapens what is an important tradition at the Olympics and does sportswomen no favours.

Like Katie Taylor at the London Olympics, our local sporting superstar Caroline O’Hanlon was official flag-bearer on merit for Team NI at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

There are more pressing issues for female sport, such as in recent days, inappropriate interference in the kit which sportswomen wear while competing.

Paralympic sprinter Olivia Breen was told her athletics briefs were ‘too short’ while the Norway handball team was fined for wearing shorts rather than bikini bottoms.

Both incidents represent intrusive sexualisation of female athletes and are reminiscent of the disgraced Sepp Blatter’s suggestion that female footballers should wear tighter shorts!

In terms of the official flag-bearer choices for Ireland, it’s a pity athletics ace Ciara Mageean wasn’t selected as she’s a brilliant ambassador but will find it tough to win a medal.

Actual choice Kellie Harrington is deserving enough but, if she is crowned Olympic champion in the ring like Taylor before her, she would have been perfect for the closing ceremony.

Royal Portrush Open champion Shane Lowry may have been a contender for the male slot occupied by boxer Brendan Irvine though golf’s very presence in the Olympics is debateable.

My own view is that sports for which the Olympics isn’t the pinnacle shouldn’t be included in the Games and certainly not at the expense of others for whom this would be the case.

Olympics soccer is an absolute joke, rugby sevens is very low priority at best for most professional players while golf and tennis stars have bigger fish to fry elsewhere.

The absence of so many of golf’s leading lights from Rio 2016 was embarrassing and Rory McIlroy’s recent comments were typically candid but will have dismayed Olympics lovers.

Insisting on boxers remaining amateur to compete at the Olympics became a nonsense once the professional golfers were brought in, as both sports have similar structures.

A sport such as squash would benefit from being in the Olympics much more than tennis and likewise netball as a team sport compared to either soccer or rugby sevens.

Hockey is a proper Olympics sport and, after the GB women’s historic triumph in Rio, it’s fantastic that their Ireland counterparts have qualified for the first time ever.

The Irish side has a real local star in the vastly experienced Lizzie Colvin, who will be facing her husband Matthew Holden’s native South Africa in the historic first fixture on Saturday!

After reaching the 2018 World Cup final against all the odds, this Ireland team will be dreaming of bringing back Olympic medals from their trip to the Far East.

Their initial group of six includes current Olympic champions Great Britain, whose squad features Anna Toman, daughter of former Armagh All Ireland gaelic football finalist, Frank.

Both teams have brilliant goalkeepers, Ayeisha McFerran for Ireland who won the individual award at the World Cup, and GB’s hero of the shootout in the final in Rio, Maddie Hinch.

Katie Mullan’s hockey heroes are the first female team ever to represent Ireland at an Olympic Games, but this ambitious bunch are determined to keep making more history.

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