Expectations in Waterford are high as we prepare for the forthcoming All Ireland Senior Hurling Final against neighbours Kilkenny on Sunday week. This writer heard the good news from Croke Park across the world in China where we had other reasons to celebrate as our gallant boxers secured three Olympic medals.
This was an outstanding achievement. Five Irish boxers qualified for Beijing and, only for the luck of the draw, John Joe Nevin could have had a fourth. On the journey back from China, we met former Olympian and World Champion John Treacy, now in charge of the Irish Sports Council. Chatting in a plane going from Amsterdam to Dublin, he agreed that this was one of the more successful Olympics for Ireland and he expressed delight with the boxers achievement.
When talk turns to sport, other Olympics will be recalled but Beijing will be properly and proudly remembered. The boxers pulled in more medals than anticipated a feat not achieved since Melbourne in 1956. In Atlanta, Georgia, in 1996, more medals were secured with two from boxing and Michelle de Bruin’s haul from swimming.
There will be some disappointment that Kenny Egan did not get gold. His family and the boxing mentors believed he could have done it as he had won two gold medals in Europe earlier this year. Facing a home Chinese opponent proved too much for him but the result did not take away from his massive achievement in reaching the final. The popular Neilstown, Clondalkin man proved to be a great Olympic ambassador and, as Captain of the Irish team, he can be rightly proud.
So close to Gold
Kenny boxed very strongly in the early rounds, as he did in the semi final, and many observers felt that, perhaps, he would have secured gold if his opponent had not been from the host nation. He eventually lost 11-7 to Zhang Xiaoping of China but some of the marking appeared dubious. There was an Irish South East connection in the fact that Kenny’s mother Maura comes from Kilkenny. His father is a chef in the Green Isle Hotel on the Naas Road, Dublin. They had great travelling support from Dublin, who were very friendly to us and felt that a final place for Kenny was on the cards. Well done also to Darren Sutherland of Dublin also for fighting so bravely to the semi-final stages and to Paddy Barnes of Belfast for doing likewise.
After the Athens Olympics, when Andy Lee was the Irish medal hope, a further review was done and new plans put in place. Better training, coaching and financial resources paid off. The Irish Sports Council stepped into the breach and committed finance to allow the boxers to remain amateur but have the time to train fulltime.
The total spend in boxing was in the region of €2.5m over a five year period. John Treacy can feel satisfied that this was money well spent as it yielded a very good return. Billy Walsh had became head coach in 2003, prior to the Athens Olympics, and, immediately, he began to lay the foundations of success. He brought in a Georgian coach and trainer, Zaur Antia, who tutored the Irish boxers in the different styles of the East Europeans and this followed earlier work done by the Cuban coach, Nicolas Cruz.
So, the boxers had the best of two styles. The Chairman of the Wexford County Boxing Board, Francis Keeling, predicted in the early stages of the tournament that there were a few medal hopes. At that point, not many at home might have believed him but we did. He revealed that the boxers completed intensive work-outs prior to training and, as many of the team were fulltime athletes, they could train twice a day. Practical tasks were worked on in the gym which proved hard work for many but it paid off with the medal tally. Martin Fennessy of Clonmel Boxing Club was speaking to The Munster Express at the Workers Gymnasium in the Chaoyang area of Beijing, was equally confident. His son Kevin, a full-time boxer, is hoping to qualify for the London Games in 2012.
Athletics is a difficult sector now for Ireland as the Caribbean and American sprinters are in a class of their own while the Africans dominate the long distance events. Getting into a race final is nearly the best that can be achieved in the post Sonya O’Sullivan era. Roisin McGettigan and Alistair Cragg made their finals but, given their personal times, medals were not on the cards.
Canoeist Eoin Rheinisch, in the slalom, was a surprise packet and, in taking fourth place, almost secured a medal. We saw him in the heats when he had a horrible first run. He had showed too much caution but, when that was thrown to the wind, he really performed and, at one stage, led the field in the final having been the last to quality from the heats and semi finals.
Finishing 62nd in the overall medal table was the final result for Ireland and there will be criticisms that such a position is not good enough from a developed country. But, public participation is weak in Olympic sports and our main sporting activities centre around GAA and soccer. Other countries had strategies to develop sports like rowing, canoeing, volleyball. We had a strategy for boxing and it paid off.
If there was greater participation by our athletes in other Olympic sports then medal hopes would rise. Norway and Austria did particularly well but they knew what to focus upon. Getting more young people involved in sport and recreation with encouragement for new clubs in Olympic disciplines could be a promising path forward.
Of course, that also requires a high degree of volunteering which is not so easy in a consumer society where time is money. Countries like China have stronger resources and, of course, Britain also did very well.
A great show
In the end, the Chinese put on a great show and the facilities were fantastic. We made it once to the Birds Nest and got to see Usain Bolt, the triple gold medal winner, win his first 100-metre heat on the Friday evening of the first day. We marvelled at the Jamaican’s performance and knew he had the gold medal already in his pocket. As in other races afterwards, he appeared to be slowing down as he crossed the line almost mocking his opponents. Adding the 200m gold was also easy for him. The Jamaican relay team also defeated the Americans making them the top stars and Usain is now an Olympic legend, the best runner since Carl Lewis.
Tickets were hard to come by, but we will remember this one. We managed to get reasonable seats on the day and were able to clearly see these world champions in the fantastic 92,000-seater stadium.
Security was really tight and even water was confiscated. It was worse than entering an airport! Once inside though, one had a great view with big screens there too.
We were sorry to See Alistair Cragg finish poorly in the 1,500 metres but as the Olympic Council PRO pointed out to us, this was not his race. He did make the final of the 5,000m, the second one in a row, but had to withdraw before the end due to injury. He was the second Irish competitor to make it to successive finals the first being John Treacy in Moscow, 1980, and in Los Angeles four years later.
Wicklow’s Roisin McGettigan kept the Irish flag flying in the 3,000-metres almost winning her heat. She ran really well creating an Irish record in the process but the final was not one of her best races and she will regret not having performed better. On leaving the Olympic area, we were able to catch our trains and be back in our home subway station in less than an hour, making it one of the more accessible Olympics.
The Bird Nest had Swiss architects and we also caught a glimpse of the marvellous Water Cube swimming pool centre designed by Australians. The Olympics was a playground for world class architects who designed and put up magnificent buildings. In the post Celtic Tiger era, we wondered what has Ireland done in putting up iconic buildings!
Jamie Costin and Geoff Curran
Olympic walker, Jamie Costin from Old Parish, a member of West Waterford AC, completed a fantastic comeback after being seriously injured in a horrific car crash on the eve of the Athens games.
Competing in the 50km event on Saturday morning, he finished in a time of 4 hours 15 minutes and 16 seconds. This put him 44th, not bad given the potentially-crippling injuries he sustained in that smash four years ago. Injuries also affected the likes of Derval O’Rourke.
Waterford’s Geoffrey Curran acquitted himself very well in the Three-Day-Eventing competition in Hong Kong which we did not get to see. But Minister Martin Cullen was there to support the Fenor man. A result of 8th has thrilled the village of Fenor, which has been festooned with flags and buntings. His army training assisted to concentrate on his sport and to devote the time needed to compete at the highest level.
It was sad to see another Irish horse get disqualified in the individual show jumping final which attracted much media attention at home and abroad. This was a separate competition and should not in any way take away from Geoffrey’s achievements in his first Olympics.
China did a fantastic job and it is a marvellous country. Each day was interesting and we had some amazing experiences. People were extremely helpful and courteous.
We felt very safe on public transport and on the street. The locals were well behaved and smiled at the tourists, especially the children. Whether this had anything to do with the Public Security Bureau (dubbed ‘Neighbourhood Nannies’ by the China Daily Newspaper) we do not know. On the bridges and around the intersections at traffic lights, people with armbands kept things in check. In other Chinese cities this was less evident but the ordinary people seemed fairly content.
The Chinese may be reluctant to criticise their country openly but they do admit that they do not have democracy. They are of the opinion that the economy’s growth comes first, with free voting later. We must say that this is an amazing country that we would encourage people to visit. It may cost a little more than flying to the USA but living is very reasonable, about a third that of Ireland and less, depending on location.
We did not see much evidence of social control except in the media where there is very little free, independent press. Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch owns the Star TV station in China and you can watch BBC and CNN in hotels. We will write more on the Beijing Olympics at a later stage.