By Walter Lawler
We entered the new millennium with an Olympics that year from 15 September until 1st October. Throughout this and the following four Olympics standards increased, and records were broken. The spectre of performance enhancing drugs was ever present, again Ireland would not remain untouched. In the 2000 Olympics Marion Jones won 3 gold and 2 bronze medals in the sprints and long jump events, later in the decade she was stripped of her medals after admitting to steroid use. Some exceptional all-time great athletes emerged, Usain Bolt in sprinting and Michael Phelps in swimming, being the most prominent. Incidentally both of whom are considered ‘clean’ athletes by the vast majority of sporting experts. 2004 was the only Olympics in which Ireland didn’t win a medal, more on that later. The 2008-2016 Olympics were particularly successful ones for Ireland. Luckily the Olympics since 2000, haven’t witnessed the large boycotts which were a blight on the Games in the 1980s.
A memorable Opening Ceremony included Tina Arena’s performance of ‘The Flame’, John Farnham & Olivia Newton-John’s duet ‘Dare to Dream’ and ‘Heroes Live Forever’ by Vanessa Amorosi. The opening ceremony concluded with the lighting of the Olympic Flame, which was brought into the stadium by former Australian Olympic champion Herb Elliott. Then, celebrating 100 years of women’s participation in the Olympic Games, former Australian women Olympic medalists Betty Cuthbert and Raelene Boyle, Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland (later Shirley Strickland de la Hunty), Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King brought the torch through the stadium, handing it over to Cathy Freeman, who lit the flame in the cauldron within a circle of fire. Freeman was the home favourite for the 400m, where she was expected to face-off with rival Marie-José Pérec of France. This showdown never happened, as Pérec left the Games after what she described as harassment from strangers. Freeman won the Olympic title in a time of 49.11 seconds, becoming only the second Australian Aboriginal Olympic champion (the first was Freeman’s 4 × 400 teammate Nova Peris-Kneebone who won for field hockey four years earlier in Atlanta). After the race, Freeman took a victory lap, carrying both the Aboriginal and Australian flags. This was despite unofficial flags being banned at the Olympic Games, and the Aboriginal flag, while recognised as official in Australia, not being a national flag or recognised by the International Olympic Committee.
Sir Steve Redgrave of Great Britain was one of the stars in Sydney. The rower won his 5th consecutive gold medal at the age of 38. He won the gold in the Coxless Four (with Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster, James Cracknell). He won his 5 golds in either Coxless Pair or Coxless Four between 1984 and 2000. His achievements all the more noteworthy as for much of his career he suffered illness: in 1992 he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and in 1997 he was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus type 2.
Australia had another hero in Sydney, 17-year-old swimming protégé Ian Thorpe, of the size 17 shoes! Entering the Olympics, the Australian public expected Thorpe to deliver multiple world records and gold medals as a formality; Sydney’s Daily Telegraph posted a front-page spread headlined ‘Invincible!’. Thorpe won the 400m freestyle in a new world record of 3 min 40.59s. Thorpe lined up later that same evening to anchor the 4 × 100 m freestyle relay, an event which the Americans had never lost at Olympic level. The third leg ended with Australia only an arm’s length ahead of the United States. Thorpe timed his dive much better than Gary Hall Jr., and surfaced a body length ahead. Hall’s sprinting ability allowed him to open a lead by the final turn, but Thorpe’s finishing kick overhauled him in the final metres, sparking wild celebrations amongst the partisan crowd. Prior to the 4 × 100 m freestyle relay, Hall posted on his blog: ‘My biased opinion says that we will smash them (Australia’s 4x100m team) like guitars..’. The Australian team responded to Hall’s remarks after the race by playing air guitar on the pool deck! In fairness to Hall he admitted afterwards ‘I doff my cap to the great Ian Thorpe. He had a better finish than I had’. Thorpe third gold came when he led off the 4 × 200 m freestyle relay, setting up a 10 m lead over American Scott Goldblatt in the first leg. The Australian team set a new world record of 7 min 07.05s. He also claimed silver in the 200m freestyle and 4 x 100m medley. 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his first appearance at an Olympics. While he did not win a medal, he did make the finals and finished fifth in the 200-metre butterfly. One for the future! Before I move on to our Irish highlight, the highlight of the games for me was the men’s 10,000m final. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Haile Gebrselassie became the third man in history to successfully defend an Olympic 10,000 metres title (after Emil Zátopek and Lasse Virén). The narrow Olympic victory over Kenya’s Paul Tergat came down to a blistering final kick, with Tergat’s 26.3-second final 200 metres being topped by Haile’s even faster 25.4. The winning margin of victory was only 0.09 seconds, closer than the winning margin in the men’s 100-metre dash final. Gebrselassie hadn’t trained properly for a month prior to the Olympics, the victory was astonishing. See link below.
Once again, all Irish eyes were on Sonia O’Sullivan in Sydney, in her third Olympics. Could she put the nightmare of Atlanta behind her? On 22nd September she won her 5,000m heat with ease. She competed in the final on the evening of 25th September, morning time in Ireland. I was working in the Central Bank on Dame Street in Dublin at this time and we were all allowed time off work to go see the race. There was an air of giddy excitement, and tension also, as we settled down to watch the race. The leisurely early pace suited Sonia perfectly but then the spectre of Atlanta reared its head as she drifted back down the field to 12th place. But just past the halfway mark she moved up to the front 6 runners. Personally, and not too many agree with me, I feel the energy expended in getting back into the contention mid race may have taken a little out of Sonia’s final kick for home. With 200m left to race she made a spectacular bid for gold, battling shoulder to shoulder with the petite Romanian Gabriella Szabo. The decibel levels rose to unprecedented height in the Central Bank canteen! In an epic finish O’Sullivan crossed the line just 23 hundredths of a second behind Szabo. It was Ireland’s first track and field medal since John Treacy in 1984. And only the second Irish woman to win an Olympic medal, after Michelle Smith. It was just reward at last for a natural athlete, one of Ireland’s greatest sports people of all time. In the 10,000 m final, held on 30 September, O’Sullivan set another personal best and national record when finishing sixth in 30:53.37 performance.
While I had been in Dublin for the 2000 Olympics, I was back living at home for the Athens Games working in my new career as a librarian. There were a few very ‘sporty’ people there and we had plenty to chat about. The 2004 Olympics took us back to where it all began, both the first modern Olympics in 1896 and back to antiquity. Infact the marathon was held on the same route as the 1896 Games, beginning in the site of the Battle of Marathon to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. The men’s event was won by Stefano Baldini of Italy, the Women’s by Mizuki Noguchi of Japan. The event is memorable for one piece of lunacy. While leading in the men’s marathon with less than 10 kilometres to go, Brazilian runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima was grabbed by Neil Horan a laicised former Irish Catholic priest and dragged into the crowd. De Lima recovered to take bronze and was later awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship. Twelve years later, at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics, he lit the Olympic Cauldron at Maracana Stadium. Neil Horan (not to be confused with Niall Horan of One Direction!!) was unwell and had a history of bizarre episodes. He interfered with the running of the 2003 British Grand Prix also, in both instances in order to promote his religious belief that the end of the world is near. He went on to appear on Britain’s Got Talent in May 2009. He danced a jig on the show, received a standing ovation by the audience and was put through to the next round. He did not make the live semi-finals, thankfully. The Olympics was a poor one for Ireland, we eventually won no medals, and this certainly wasn’t our finest hour.
Britain’s Paula Radcliffe had been the favourite to take gold in the lead up to the Olympics, however in such a grueling event favouritism often goes out the window due to form, injuries, and anything can happen on the day itself. In 2002, Radcliffe made the move up to the marathon, a decision that immediately paid off with victory at her debut in that year’s London Marathon on 14 April 2002 in a world’s best time for a women’s only race (2:18:55). Her time was the second quickest in women’s marathon history behind the world record of 2:18:47 set by Catherine Ndereba, of Kenya, in Chicago in 2001. Later that year, Radcliffe set a world record time of 2:17:18 in the Chicago Marathon on 13 October 2002, breaking the previous record by a minute and a half. Radcliffe set her last women’s marathon world record during the 2003 London Marathon in April, with a time of 2:15:25. She suffered an injury to her leg just two weeks prior to the event and had to use a high dose of anti-inflammatory drugs. This had an adverse effect on her stomach, hindering food absorption. She ended up withdrawing from the race after 36 km (22 mi), in emotional and physical distress. Five days later she started in the 10,000 metres but, still suffering from the effects of the marathon, retired with eight laps remaining. It was sad to see such a hard-working, and very well liked, athlete in distress and brought back memories of Sonia’s troubles in 1996.
Justin Gatllin won the men’s 100m final for the US but throughout his career proved to be a drugs cheat. Yulia Nestsiarenka, a Belarusian sprinter, won the women’s 100m. British athlete Kelly Holmes, GB, won gold in the 800 m and 1500m. The 1,500m is often considered the ‘blue-riband event’ of major athletic meets. Hicham El Guerrouj, probably the finest miler of all time, won gold in the 1,500m in an epic contest with Bernard Lagat of Kenya (later the US). El Guerrouj looked beaten with 40m to go only to summon strength from some unknown source, the scenes after the race were emotional as Lagat and El Guerrouj embraced. El Guerrouj competed in his first Olympic Games in 1996 at Atlanta. Running the 1500 metres final, as he was moving into position to challenge for the lead, he fell with 400 m to go and finished last in 12th place. He had been expected to challenge the world record holder and three-time World champion, Noureddine Morceli. At the Sydney Olympics, El Guerrouj was favourite to take gold but finished second in the 1500 metres, behind Noah Ngeny, a talented Kenyan runner at the peak of his career. El Guerrouj did a double when winning the 5,000m in Athens also, the first man in 80 years to win both 1500m and 5000m titles in the same Olympics, previously achieved only by the “Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi in 1924. Below is a link to the 1,500m final in Athens.
2004 was a breakthrough Olympics for some household names. Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia, broke the world records for the indoor 5000m, outdoor 5000m and outdoor 10,000m (both in a time frame of 9 days). He won the short and long course world cross country titles, leading Ethiopia to the senior men’s team title. He also won a gold medal in the men’s 10,000 metres and a silver medal in the men’s 5000 metres in Athens. Swimmer Michael Phelps, who came 5th in the 200m butterfly as a 15-year-old in Sydney, became the first athlete to win 8 medals (6 gold and 2 bronze) in non-boycotted Olympics. Yelena Isinbayeva won gold medal with a new world record height of 4.91m in the women’s pole vault. The Russian subsequently broke the record later that year at the Memorial Van Damme in Brussels with a 4.92 m jump, her eighth world record of the season. Isinbayeva was named World Athlete of the Year for winning the Olympic & World Indoor title and breaking the World record eight times. Bekele, Phelps and Isinbayeva became legends who would win gold in Beijing in 2008. A young Jamaican athlete at his first Olympics turned 18 during the games, Usain Bolt. Bolt headed to the 2004 Athens Olympics with confidence, however, he was hampered by a leg injury and was eliminated in the first round of the 200 metres with a disappointing time of 21.05s. Like the aforementioned stars he would be prominent in Beijing and beyond.
As alluded to this wasn’t a vintage Irish Olympics. Cian O’Connor represented Ireland in Show jumping. Riding his horse, Waterford Crystal, he became an instant national hero, as it seemed he was the only Irish medalist that year. However, on 8 October 2004, it emerged that Waterford Crystal had tested positive for a prohibited substance. The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) ruled that O’Connor must be stripped of his medal and he also received a three-month ban from competition. FEI found that he did not deliberately attempt to affect the performance of the horse. The individual show jumping gold medal went to Brazilian Rodrigo Pessoa and the Irish team’s seventh place was awarded to the Italians.
In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics there were concerns expressed by Amnesty International and politicians in both Europe and the United States about the awarding of the Games, given China’s Human Rights’ record. Also, of concern was the air quality. Luckily the particulate matter in the air (PM10) in Beijing decreased by an average of 18 percent during 2008 and 30 percent during the Games. These measures caused a sudden and sharp decrease in air pollution levels in Beijing and nearby cities and were beneficial for the events requiring most endurance like the marathon. The Government of the People’s Republic of China promoted the Games and invested heavily in new facilities and transport systems. In total, 37 venues were used to host the events, including twelve constructed specifically for the 2008 Games. This was the first time China had hosted the Summer Olympic Games, and the third time the Games had been held in East Asia, following the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. An unprecedented 87 countries won at least one medal during the Games. China won the most gold medals, with 48, and became the seventh different team to top an overall Summer Olympics medal tally, winning a total of 100 medals overall. The United States placed second in the gold medal tally, but won the highest number of medals overall, with a total of 112. The third place in the gold medal tally was achieved by Russia.
Many of the top athletes in Athens stared again. On 17 August 2008 Kenenisa Bekele won gold in the 10,000m finals with a time of 27:01.17, setting a new Olympic Record in the process. In a race in which 20 men broke the 28-minute barrier, he needed his renowned finishing kick to pull out the victory. Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva broke her own women’s pole vault world record by clearing 16 feet 6 and 3/4 inches (5.05 metres) and took her second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the event, repeating her victory in the women’s pole vault at the 2004 Athens Games. The U.S. men’s basketball team, featuring such National Basketball Association superstars as LeBron James, the late Kobe Bryant, and Carmelo Anthony, defeated Spain 118–107 for the gold medal in the event. A surprisingly tight win. Brazil took the gold in women’s volleyball, defeating the United States for the country’s first Olympic win in the event. Rafael Nadal of Spain won the gold medal in the men’s tennis singles event, becoming the first player with a top-five ranking by the Association of Tennis Professionals to do so. Russia’s Elena Dementieva defeated countrywoman Dinara Safina to capture the gold medal in the women’s tennis singles event. Jamaica continued its domination of the sprints as all three medalists in the women’s 100-metre sprint final, led by gold medal winner Shelly-Ann Fraser, hailed from that country.
Of course, the two names that dominated the Beijing Olympics were Usain Bolt on the track and Michael Phelps in the pool. Two outstanding athletes of all time, who won golds and broke records in scintillating fashion. Bolt doubled-up with the 100 metres and 200 metres events at the Beijing Summer Olympics. As the new 100 m world-record holder, he was the favourite to win both races. In the Olympic 100 m final, Bolt broke new ground, winning in 9.69s. This was an improvement upon his own world record, and he was well ahead of second-place finisher Richard Thompson, Trinidad and Tobago, who finished in 9.89s. Amazingly Bolt also visibly slowed down to celebrate before he finished, and his shoelace was untied. Bolt’s coach reported that, based upon the speed of Bolt’s opening 60 m, he could have finished with a time of 9.52s. It’s probably the only regret I’d have with his career was that he didn’t run a sub 9.5sec mile. Maybe just a little bit of extra focus at certain stages of his career when he was at his peak…easy for me to say! Bolt then focused on attaining a gold medal in the 200 m event, aiming to emulate Carl Lewis’ double win in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The following day, at the final, he won Jamaica’s fourth gold of the Games, setting a new world and Olympic record of 19.30s, beating Michael Johnson’s record of 19.32s set in Atlanta. Johnson’s record fell despite the fact that Bolt was impeded by a 0.9 m/s headwind. He turned 22 next day. Two days later, Bolt ran as the third leg in the Jamaican 4 × 100 metres relay team, increasing his gold medal total to three. Bolt brought a level of relaxation and showman moves to the sprints I had never seen before; he was a great entertainer. The name “Bolting” was given to his signature pose where he leans back with one arm to the sky and the other pulled back by his ear, which makes his body look a little like the shape of a lightning bolt.
Michael Phelps, USA, won his first gold of the games in the 400m individual medley, breaking his previous world record by nearly two seconds. His second gold medal came in the 4 x 100m freestyle, Phelps broke his previous world record in the 200-metre freestyle by nearly a second and won his third gold medal. In this race, Phelps became the fifth Olympic athlete in modern history to win nine gold medals, joining Mark Spitz, Larisa Latynina, Paavo Nurmi, and Carl Lewis. In the 200-metre butterfly, Phelps made it four gold medals and world records in four events by swimming the final in 1:52.03. It was just incredible stuff. With his extra-long torso and flipper-like feet, it’s no wonder he was nicknamed the ‘Flying Fish’. He also earned the moniker ‘the Baltimore Bullet’, as he hailed from Baltimore, Maryland. Less than one hour after his gold medal victory in the 200-metre butterfly, Phelps swam the lead-off leg of the 4×200-metre freestyle relay and won his fifth gold, and set his fifth world record, with the American team of Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens, and Peter Vanderkaay. Phelps won his sixth gold of the Beijing Games on August 15 by winning the 200-metre individual medley with a world record time of 1:54.23. On August 16, Phelps won his seventh gold medal of the Games in the men’s 100-metre butterfly, setting an Olympic record for the event with a time of 50.58 seconds, unlike the previous events he didn’t set a world record! Phelps’s seventh gold medal of the Games tied Mark Spitz’s record for gold medals won in a single Olympic Games, set in the 1972 Olympics. On August 17, Phelps won his eighth gold medal in the 4×100-metre medley relay, breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals won in a single Olympic Games. When Phelps dived in to swim the 100-metre butterfly leg, the third leg of the 400-metre medley, the United States had been trailing Australia and Japan. Phelps completed his split in 50.1 seconds, the fastest butterfly split ever for the event, giving teammate Jason Lezak a more than half-second lead for the final leg, which he held onto to clinch the event in world record time. Very hard to see his record being equalled, let alone beaten. But I’m sure the same was said of Mark Spitz in 1972. As Phelps himself remarked, records are meant to be broken. And the debate goes on, is Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt the greatest Olympian of all time? One must consider there are far more events in swimming. Likewise, Bolt did not partake in the long jump like Lewis and Owens before him.
Not for the first time Ireland’s best hopes were in the boxing ring. Kenny Egan won silver at Men’s Light Heavyweight. He lost to China’s Xiaoping Zhang in the Olympic Final Gold Medal match. Belfast’s Paddy Barnes won a bronze medal at Light Flyweight. He lost his semi-final to Semi-final Zou Shiming, China. The home venue seemed to inspire the Chinese. The late Darren Sutherland won a bronze medal in the Middleweight division. He lost his semi-final to James DeGale of Great Britain. Darren turned pro and won his first 4 fights. He died tragically in September 2009, aged only 27.
There were great hopes for the Irish team making the short trip to London in 2012. A lot of things would be in our favour, similar climate, relatively little travel at the one time zone, plenty of Irish support. We did very well, bringing home 6 medals, our largest haul to date. Also, Women’s Boxing was added to the games and we had a multiple World Champion in Katie Taylor. One of the most memorable aspects of the Games was the spectacular Opening Ceremony. It was a celebration of everything good brought by Britain to the world across every conceivable field, an artistic spectacle to showcase the host nation’s culture. The Games were formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II. The spectacle was entitled ‘Isles of Wonder’ and directed by Academy Award-winning British film director Danny Boyle. The principal sections of the artistic display represented Britain’s Industrial Revolution, National Health Service, literary heritage, popular music and culture, and were noted for their vibrant storytelling and use of music.
‘My Generation’ by The Who, ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones, ‘My Boy Lollipop’ sung by Millie Small, ‘All Day and All of the Night’ by the Kinks, ‘She Loves You’ by the Beatles (with footage of the band performing the song), ‘Trampled Under Foot’ by Led Zeppelin, ‘Starman”’ by David Bowie, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen, ‘Pretty Vacant’ by the Sex Pistols were some of the 1960s and 70s music included. There was also footage of ‘London Calling’ by The Clash, and the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’. The 1980s section featured the likes of New Order and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, while the 1990s covered Britpoppers Blur and dance acts such as the Prodigy and Underworld themselves. Stars including Paul McCartney, Arctic Monkeys, Mike Oldfield and Dizzee Rascal all performed live. The Arctic Monkeys performed a frantic version of their 2005 hit ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,’ accompanied by a stunning firework show. Things were brought right up to date with music from the likes of Amy Winehouse, Muse and Tinie Tempah. Emili Sandé sang ‘Abide With Me,’ the hymn traditionally sung at many U.K. sporting occasions, in a section dedicated to the victims of the London 7/7 bombings, which happened the day after London was announced as the Olympics host city in 2005. Other sport and entertainment stars playing a role in the three-hour ceremony included comedian Rowan Atkinson, appearing as Mr. Bean in a Chariots Of Fire spoof; actor Kenneth Branagh, who portrayed engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel; Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling; World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee; soccer player David Beckham; rower Sir Steve Redgrave and Tour de France-winning cyclist Bradley Wiggins. Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Peter Pan were also referenced in a wide-ranging celebration of British popular culture, along with references to British industrial and political history.
Great Britain had their most impressive Olympics in decades, coming 3rd in the medal table with 29 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze medals. Mo Farrah completed a double for GB in the 5,000 and 10,000m, equaling what Bekele of Kenya did 4 years previously. Greg Rutherford won gold in the long jump, with a jump of 8.31m, modest by Olympic and World Championship standards. Jessica Ennis won the gold medal in the heptathlon at the London Olympics with a British and Commonwealth record score of 6,955 points, beating silver medalist Lilli Schwarzkopf by 306 points and bronze medalist Tatyana Chernova by a further 21 points. Ennis, along with other British 2012 Olympic gold medal winners, was featured on a special Royal Mail commemorative postage stamp and had a post box on the corner of Division Street and Holly Street in Sheffield city centre painted gold in her honour. She was selected as EAA ‘European Female Athlete of the Year’ in October. Britain did particularly well in cycling and rowing. A total of 8 gold medals were won in cycling 12 in total, and 4 gold won in rowing, 9 in total. Bradley Wiggins, fresh from his Tour de France victory, won the Men’s time trial on 1st August. Andy Murray won gold in the men’s tennis event, defeating Roger Federer in straight sets, for the loss of just 7 games. Anthony Joshua, a future two-time unified world heavyweight champion, won the men’s super-heavyweight title in boxing.
At the 2012 Games Michael Phelps won four gold and two silver medals. Phelps’s final event was the 4×100-metre medley relay in which he went on to win his 18th career gold medal and his 22nd overall. By winning 4 gold and 2 silver medals, Phelps concluded the 2012 Olympics as the most successful swimmer of the meet for the third Olympics in a row. After his last event, the international swimming federation FINA honored Phelps with an award commemorating his standing as the most decorated Olympian ever. At the 2012 London Olympics Usain Bolt won the 100 metres gold medal with a time of 9.63 seconds, improving upon his own Olympic record and duplicating his gold medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yohan Blake of Jamaica was the silver medalist with a time of 9.75 seconds. Bolt followed this up with a successful defence of his Olympic 200 metres title with a time of 19.32 seconds, followed by Blake at 19.44 and Warren Weir at 19.84 to complete a Jamaican podium sweep. On the final day of the 2012 Olympic athletics, Bolt participated in Jamaica’s gold medal-winning 4×100 metres relay team along with Nesta Carter, Michael Frater and Blake. With a time of 36.84 seconds, they knocked two tenths of a second from their previous world record from 2011. Shelly-Ann Fraser retained her 100m title for Jamaica also. On 9 August 2012 at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Rudisha led from start to finish to win gold in what was acclaimed ‘The Greatest 800 Meter Race Ever’. Initially he was a 400 metres runner, but his coach, Irishman Brother Colm O’Connell, prompted him to try 800m. Brother Colm O’Connell is an Irish missionary and athletics coach, known as ‘the Godfather of Kenyan running’. In so doing, he became the first and, so far, only runner to break the 1:41 barrier for 800m. Missy Franklin tied with Michael Phelps for most gold medals won at the 2012 Olympics. Both U.S. swimmers won four gold medals. Viktoria Komova, Russia, and Danell Leyva, USA, were considered the best gymnasts at the London Games.
As alluded to, London was our most successful Olympics with Katie Taylor leading the way. Her first appearance came on 6 August, after a first-round bye. She achieved an impressive 26–15 victory over Great Britain’s Natasha Jonas, booking her place in the semi-final and guaranteeing her, at least, an Olympic bronze medal. The throngs of Taylor fans produced record noise levels at the ExCel fight arena. In the semi-final on 8 August 2012, she proved far too good for Tajikistan’s Mavzuna Chorieva and won in a 17–9 victory, booking her place in the final and guaranteeing her, at least, an Olympic silver medal. Taylor defeated Russia’s Sofya Ochigava in the final bout by 10–8 on 9 August 2012, winning an Olympic gold medal, and becoming the first ever Olympic female lightweight champion. It was a hard-fought contest with the fighters level on points going into the last round. The country came to a standstill for the final bout, in scenes reminiscent of Italia ’90. She received a tremendous home coming in Dublin and her native Bray.
Our boxers were to the fore in this Olympics again. John Joe Nevin won a silver medal in the men’s bantamweight. Paddy Barnes repeated his feat in Beijing winning bronze in the light flyweight division. Paddy is an affable character and proved popular with teammates and the media alike on the Olympic Games he represented Ireland. Michael Conlan won another bronze for Ireland at men’s flyweight. Rob Heffernan finished fourth in the 50km, finishing seven minutes faster than the previous national record. In early 2015, it was revealed that a number of Russian male and female champion racewalkers were under investigation for doping violations including the winner of the 50 km walk in London, Sergey Kirdyapkin. On 24 March 2016, the court of Arbitration for Sport upgraded Heffernan to Olympic Bronze. To complete our haul of 6 medals Cian O’Connor won the Bronze medal in London with his horse Blue Loyd 12, in individual jumping.
The Rio Brazil Olympics wasn’t the best for me personally as I literally can’t remember a lot of it. For the previous 3 months I had been suffering from recurring throat and chest infections. During that period, I had about 10 antibiotics, alternating between Augmentin and Klacid generally. Something was wrong though and I wasn’t picking up, especially strange as it was summertime. About 2 days into the Olympics, on 7th August I had another chest infection. After already taking so many antibiotics in such a short space of time I decided that no matter how bad the dose was going to get I wouldn’t take another antibiotic as I’d become immune to them and my gut was wrecked. I got progressively worse and being asthmatic my breathing went haywire, and I while I had a nebulizer in my home in Portlaoise I had no nebs meds. I was lying on my couch, around 2pm on 10th August, trying to watch Chloe Magee from Donegal play badminton in Rio and sweating more than she was. Then my breathing got worse and I had trouble standing up. I managed to drive the short distance down to A&E. The rest of that day is a bit of a blur, but I was on Oxygen on a trolley, which was really small, and my legs were dangling over the edge. It was the worst I had ever felt in my life and you’re at a stage where you can’t take in what is going on around you. At 2am I got a bed. I had double lobar pneumonia. I spent 10 days in hospital, getting a little better day by day. Around the same time Hilary Clinton got pneumonia during her 2016 presidential campaign. She was up and going within days, I wondered how she got off so lightly!
Most of my memories of the games come from my hospital ward. It was there I watched Katie Taylor crash out in the quarter finals of her boxing division to Mira Potkonen of Finland. I also saw Michael Conlan lose, controversially, at the quarter-finals stage at bantamweight to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin. He gave an emotional, expletive ridden, quite understandably, interview straight afterwards. The O’Donovan brothers from Skibbereen won silver in the men’s lightweight double sculls. From snippets here and there, they seemed to be characters. It was hard to follow anything properly with noise in the ward from nurses, doctors, visitors coming and going. Annalise Murphy, who had come 4th in London, won a silver medal in the Women’s Laser Radial Sailing class.
An English man of around 70 years (the English Patient if you like!) in my ward was particularly interested in all the English events, particularly the track cycling. Sometimes they clashed with Irish events and there was a bit of antagonism with the livelier members of the ward! Team GB had plenty to cheer about, they were second overall in the medals table, and won almost as many medals as at their ‘home’ Olympics in London. Mo Farrah won a ‘double double’ winning the 5,000m and 10,000m titles as he had in London. The two shining stars of Olympics since Beijing, Bolt and Phelps, continued on their winning ways. Usain Bolt won the 100 metres gold medal with a time of 9.81 seconds. With this win, Bolt became the first athlete to win the event three times at the Olympic Games. Bolt followed up his 100m win with a gold medal in the 200m, which also makes him the first athlete to win the 200m three times at the Olympic Games. Bolt ran the anchor leg for the finals of the 4 × 100 m relay and secured his third consecutive and last Olympic gold medal in the event. Bolt obtained the ‘triple-triple’, three sprinting gold medals in three consecutive Olympics, and finished his Olympic career with a 100% win record in finals. Elaine Thompson won the women’s 100 and 200m in Rio, another Jamaican sprinter, as the country continues to dominate sprinting, despite only having a population of roughly 3 million. Michael Phelps won 5 golds and a silver in the pool in Rio. Phelps ended his Olympic career with 28 medals, 23 gold. If Michael Phelps were a country, he would be 39th on all-time Olympics gold medal table! 19-year-old Simone Biles, USA, was the outstanding gymnast at the games. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Biles won individual gold medals in all-around, vault and floor; bronze in balance beam; and gold as part of the United States team. To date Biles has won a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, Biles is the most decorated American gymnast and the world’s third most decorated gymnast, behind Belarus’ Vitaly Scherbo (33 medals) and Russia’s Larisa Latynina (32 medals).
And that concludes my package of highlights, and some lowlights, from Sydney 2000 to Rio 2016. We all look forward to what Tokyo 2021 has in store for us. There’ll be no Michael Phelps of Usain Bolt at the games, for the first time since 1996. However, as always new stars will emerge. Our medal winners from 2016 are still young enough to be at the business end of affairs. Sanita Puspure, if she can retain her form at 39, is a medal hopeful in rowing. Younger talent will come through and the unexpected will happen.
Citius – Altius – Fortius!