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The magic of niche

Why the Olympics is still the greatest sporting spectacle on earth

Sabre. Street. Skeet. Sculls. Random words that for most of our lives mean nothing, or something mundane. Then once every four years we all briefly become experts in sports like fencing, skateboarding, shooting and rowing.

Yep, the Olympic circus is on, and regardless of whether it should have gone ahead or not, it’s hard not to get caught up.

The lack of crowds has taken some of the shine off things from a TV perspective, but an internet search of ‘Dean Boxall celebration’ will quickly reveal that the emotion is still there for the athletes and, in Boxall’s case, coaches.

Olympic cycles are a strange thing. For most athletes in Olympic sports, every fourth year is the peak of their sporting existence. Depending on the sport, there are World Championships every year, every second year or every fourth. Depending on where you are from, there are Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs and European Championships; but pretty much everything is leading to the big show.

Which does make you wonder why sports like golf and tennis need to be included on the Olympic programme. Surely Rory McIlroy would consider a green jacket from Masters at Augusta a bigger prize than an Olympic gold medal. Would Andy Murray not swap his Rio gold for another Wimbledon title?

Many athletes rely on the circuit for government funding and sponsorship. Look at all those machines who seem to come off a production line down at Skibbereen Rowing Club and win medals every time the put the boat in the water. Let’s be blunt; there’s money in medals, and at least part of the reason the programme is so good in Skibbereen is that the more they win, the more funding they get and athletes they attract. Then there are athletes like Helen Glover, the Team GB rower who retired after Rio, only to decide twelve months ago that lock down was a bit tedious and maybe she would go for a row and qualify for the Olympics. She lives on the Thames, has a full rowing gym at the house. Oh, and two gold medals from London and Rio. Funding and sponsors will follow her anywhere, regardless of results.

Skibbereen Rowing Club’s Emily Hegarty celebrating last Wednesday after she and her Ireland teammates Aifric Keogh, Fiona Murtagh and Eimear Lambe took bronze in the Women’s Four rowing at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in Japan.  Pic: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

The real beauty of the Olympics is that it allows audiences to see niche sports. Indeed, it can make superstars of some of those niche sportspeople. And may just encourage someone to try a new activity.

Breaststroke is, to my mind, the least glamourous of the swimming strokes, and rowing possibly the most painful of pastimes. But wouldn’t it be great if a whole raft of Irish girls saw Mona McSharry or the Women’s Four rowers and decided to take to the water in either togs or a boat. Or watched the handball (the non-GAA version) and decided that a mix of soccer and basketball was just what they needed in their life.

The Olympic body, like so many other sporting organisations, has become bloated and full of its own self-importance. We could talk about Pat Hickey’s arrest in Rio, or IOC Vice President John Coates’s behaviour at the announcement that Brisbane had been awarded the 2032 games. But that is to take something away from the magic.

Sport is great because it is one person or one team against themselves, their opponents and the elements. Sure, the biggest, wealthiest nations will most likely win the most medals, but that doesn’t take away from the achievement of some others in just qualifying. Or the joy that comes from doing your best on the biggest stage.

Then there are the athletes from the International Refugee Team, like Cameroonian Cyrille Tchatchet, the weightlifter who reportedly lived under a bridge in Brighton for several months and stood on a cliff contemplating suicide after absconding from the Athletes’ Village at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. As part of the counselling he received during his application for refugee status, he was encouraged to return to sport and to study. He is now a Mental Health Nurse and reportedly a good chance of finishing in the top six in his event.

There’s another week or so to go. So, get the kids to watch some of the events – find a random sport and see what they think – then get outside and do your best to copy it. Who knows, the Irish superstar of the 2028 or 2032 games might just be eating their cornflakes across the table from you.

This post originally appeared in The Mayo News

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