London 2012: The Irish Invasion

Kevin Beirne looks back on Ireland’s most successful Olympic and Paralympic campaigns our lifetimesThis year, London played host to the Summer Olympic and Paralympic games. In all, over 15,000 athletes competed in over 800 events. Among those competing were some of the top athletes from all over the world. Huge names such as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Roger Federer all took part in a highly entertaining Games.Once again, we tuned in to hours upon hours of world-class sport. From the pool to the athletics track, records were broken and legends were made. There was drama to be found anywhere you looked, as a life’s worth of preparation for each athlete was realised over the 19 days of competitive action.These Olympics were historic for many a reason. Perhaps the greatest legacy that London 2012 will leave behind is its push towards gender equality. In fact, that this was the first time every single competing country sent a female athlete and that every single sport was undertaken by both men and women.Irish fans will be all too aware of the addition of women’s boxing to the menu of action this year. Katie Taylor entered the games with the weight of a nation’s expectation on her shoulders and she did not disappoint. She won all three of her matches to take the first ever gold in the women’s lightweight division.The support Taylor received throughout the competition was immense. Her quarter-final was electric, with the crowd noise reaching a whopping 113.7 decibels. For some context on that, 110 decibels is described as the average human pain threshold. Perhaps it is fitting that the Irish fans would join Taylor in exposing themselves to physical harm in search of glory.Taylor was not the only Irish Olympian to medal. Ireland had its best showing at a summer games since 1956, where one gold, one silver and three bronze medals were also won by Irish athletes. John Joe Nevin, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon also picked up medals in boxing while Cian O’Connor, who was stripped of his gold in Athens, picked up bronze to make this Ireland’s first games with a medal in more than one sport since 1980.John Joe Nevin is a proud member of the travelling community and has made clear that he hopes his achievements can encourage a better relationship between the travelling and settled communities in Ireland. He calls it his legacy, and what a legacy it would be. Although Nevin reached the final of the men’s bantamweight, he fell just short as he lost 14-11 to Luke Campbell of Team GB.Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon collected bronze after impressing in their individual classes. Barnes became the first Irish Olympian to collect a medal in back-to-back games since Pat O’Callaghan won gold in the hammer throw in 1928 and again in 1932. Barnes faced off against the same opponent who beat him in Beijing, but with a better result this time, as he lost 45-44 on a countback.Cian O’Connor’s medal was probably the most surprising of the five. Originally, O’Connor was not even supposed to be at the Olympics. The withdrawal of Denis Lynch in the eleventh hour meant O’Connor was called up to compete. Even then, O’Connor did not qualify for the final round, but the withdrawal of the 2008 silver medallist opened the door for O’Connor to go for a medal. In the end, he missed out on a jumping off for a gold medal by two hundredths of a second.UCD was well-represented at the games too. Most notably, Annalise Murphy finished fourth in the women’s laser radials, storming into the lead by winning the opening two races. Having led until the 8th race, and tied for third going in to the medal race, she described the fourth place finish as the worst result she could have achieved, being only a point off the top before the race.Murphy is currently on an extended study break from studying science, as she pursues a career in sailing. At 22 years-old, there is much expected of her in the Rio 2016 games.In the modern pentathlon, UCD was represented by 20 year-old sports and exercise management student Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe. Lanigan-O’Keeffe was described as “Ireland’s last-minute Olympian” after he was drafted in to compete following the withdrawal of a Polish competitor who tested positive for a banned substance.Lanigan-O’Keeffe made a strong showing in an incredibly physically demanding competition, eventually finishing in 25th place. The modern pentathlon required competitors to face off in fencing, swimming, horse-riding and then finish off in a combined running and shooting event. Lanigan-O’Keeffe is another athlete who is already looking forward to Rio 2016, where he should be at an even higher standard.But it’s not all about the Olympics. This year’s Paralympics were the largest ever of its kind. In all, Ireland had their most successful Paralympics since 1988, where they also finished 19th in the medals table. The Irish Paralympians greatly exceeded all expectations, as they picked up 8 gold, 3 silver and 5 bronze medals.Jason Smyth dominated the men’s T13 sprints, winning gold in the 100m and 200m, setting Paralympic and world records in both. Smyth has set his eyes on competing in the able-bodied Olympics in Rio 2016. His 100m time of 10.43 seconds would not be enough to compete for a medal, but he could still qualify, which would be an incredible achievement itself.Michael McKillop and Mark Rohan also achieved double gold in athletics and cycling respectively, while Behtany Firth and Darragh McDonald topped off Ireland’s gold medals in swimming.Performance director of Paralympics Ireland, Nancy Chillingworth, calls the Irish performance “hugely successful” and admits that the target for the games was merely to break into the Top 30, adding that “internally, our target was between five and ten [medals]… but I didn’t think we’d hit 16.”“Before we went away, we laid out 15 medal possibilities, but they were kind of possibilities, with everything going right. I never thought we’d hit them; you rarely ever convert all of your possibilities.”When asked what area most surprised her, Chillingworth is quick to answer: “The equestrian team, without a doubt. In previous games we’ve qualified one horse, so this was the first time Ireland had qualified an equestrian team. They went in ranked eighth.”Chillingworth goes on to describe the showing of the equestrian team as “the performance of their lifetime” and adds that “they had all demonstrated in the past that they were capable of producing really, really significant results, but they hadn’t yet shown that consistency of performance across the team. So, for it to come off and place them in the medals, that was the one that would have surprised us the most.”One member of that equestrian team was none other than UCD’s very own Helen Kearney, who made an impressive haul of individual silver and bronze as well as a team bronze. Kearney graduated in abstentia from UCD with a Bachelor of Commerce (BComm) on the same day she won individual bronze in dressage. UCD President, Dr. Hugh Brady joked: “Representing your country in the Paralympics has got to be one of the most remarkable reasons for graduating in absentia.”When asked whether or not Ireland’s success at these Paralympic games is down to the structures in place or the pure talent available, Chillingworth says: “I think there’s a combination. I think that in order to hit that really top level elite of performance, that talent has to be there. I think that it’s essential that the systems and structures to support it are there also.“I think we have one of the best sports science and medicine teams out there. We appoint them centrally early in the cycle and so then they actively work with all of the sports throughout the four years, so it’s not a team who are parachuted in just for the games.” She also stresses the importance of “consistency over the cycle” as a method of success.Chillingworth says she hopes that the achievements of the Paralympians this summer will deter the government from making any big cuts to their funding in the future. Still, she believes that at the moment Paralympics Ireland receives sufficient funding, but warns: “There is probably a quite significant cut coming down the tracks.”There is no doubt that the Irish competitors in Olympic and Paralympic games benefitted greatly from its location this year. Chillingworth sums it up, saying: “London was something quite extraordinary. The British public definitely seemed to take Ireland on as their second team.”Some will wonder whether or not we can repeat, or even improve upon, the performance at London 2012. The ease of access for Irish fans made it feel like a home game to some. It is difficult to see the same amount of Irish making the long trip to Brazil for the 2016 games, but there is the talent there to succeed.London 2012 will live long in the memory as an example of Irish sporting achievement. From a national perspective, we achieved far beyond our expectations. Here’s hoping it is a stepping stone to further success.