Now that the curtain has drawn on Rio 2016, Irish sport can reflect on what has been a largely successful Olympic Games for Team Ireland, writes James Galvin.
We have had some wonderful achievements at these Games. Many of our athletes broke national records and achieved career bests, making Irish sporting history in doing so.
The performance (and antics) of brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan will long live in the memory. Not only did the Skibbereen pair show spectacular athleticism in claiming silver in the lightweight double sculls rowing, they also emerged as Irish heroes with their charisma, charm and wit. This was Ireland’s first ever Olympic medal in rowing, and I think it is safe to say that we certainly haven’t seen the last of the brothers ‘pulling like dogs’ on the international stage.
And who could forget Annalise Murphy, who bounced back terrifically from her disappointment in London four years ago to win silver in the Laser Radial. The delight on the Dun Laoghaire native’s face when she stepped up on the podium at Martina de Gloria melted the hearts of the nation. After coming so agonisingly close in London, nobody could deny her this success.
In athletics, Thomas Barr came within 0.05 seconds of a bronze medal in the 400m hurdles, breaking his own national record in the process. Fionnuala McCormack and Paul Pollock performed admirably in the marathon, finishing 20th and 32nd respectively. Rob Heffernan followed up his bronze medal from London with a 6th place finish in the 50km walk in the scorching Rio sunshine, while Brendan Boyce also finished in the top 20. An honourable mention must also go out to Sara Treacy, who qualified for the 3,000m steeplechase final.
Elsewhere, Ireland won its first ever men’s badminton matches at an Olympic Games when Scott Evans qualified for the last 16. The scenes of his wild, shirtless celebrations will live on in our memories for years to come. In cycling, Dan Martin finished an impressive 13th in the men’s road race and in rowing Claire Lambe and Sinead Jennings came 6th in the lightweight double sculls final.
Another big success for Ireland came in the pool, when 23 year-old Oliver Dingley defied the odds by qualifying for the 3m springboard final and finishing 8th. Dingley was the first Irish diver to qualify for the Olympics since 1948. The Irish also finished 8th in the Eventing Team final in a team made up of Clare Abbott, Jonty Evans, Mark Kyle and Padraig McCarthy. Judy Reynolds also made it to the dressage final.
The men’s hockey team made it to the Olympics for the first time since 1908, and were the only non-professional team competing in the tournament. Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern finished 10th in the final of the men’s 49er. And over the last few days of the Games, Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lanigan O’Keefe finished 7th and 8th in the modern pentathlon.
Other notable achievements included Fionnuala McCormack, who clocked 2:31:22 in the marathon, knocking 22 seconds off her personal best in the process. We also had our first ever female gymnast and track cyclist at the Games in Ellis O’Reilly and Shannon McCurley, and an honourable mention must also go out to gymnast Kieran Behan who performed fantastically despite suffering a serious knee injury.
So although it may not have shown in our final medal count, Team Ireland did enjoy significant improvements across the board. Our team of 77 athletes was the largest Ireland has sent to an Olympics since 1948, and when you consider that 127 of the 205 nations who attended the Games have gone home empty handed, we have without a doubt punched above our weight on the international stage once again. The return on investment in Irish sport is clear to see.
But, as we know, the benefit of sport to society stretches far beyond those competing at the elite level. People who regularly partake in sport enjoy huge improvements to their personal health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally. Indeed, those who take part in sport are, on average, 14 years younger in health terms.
Sport extends across virtually every county, town and village in the country, with more than 500,000 volunteers taking part in it nationwide. Therefore, sport is a huge player in both social inclusion and community development.
And that’s not all. Sport also stimulates the economy in a variety of different ways. It supports 40,000 jobs across every constituency in Ireland and it generates a massive €1.9 billion in household spending annually. Sport is also responsible for €1 billion in annual tourism receipts.
The Federation and its members are working tirelessly throughout the country in promoting the wide and varied benefits of sport. Our members’ work has contributed tenfold to a healthier Ireland, both economically and personally. And their success at the Olympics proves that investment in sport is, in fact, working and Ireland is reaping the benefits.
So congratulations to all of Team Ireland, their coaches, support staff, families and friends on a memorable Olympic Games. And best of luck to all of the Irish athletes taking part in the upcoming Paralympic Games. We are already looking forward Tokyo 2020.
James Galvin is the CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport – The Voice of Irish Sport. Follow the Federation on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.