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Memories of Athens 2004

An Olympic games just an hour’s flight away, well I was always going to take advantage of that. It doesn’t get any bigger for an event junkie like me so I’m heading over to the Olympics for a couple of days. Tickets and accommodation secured (think I’m sleeping Harry Potter style under the stairs in a friends place), it’s London 2012 here we come.

Eight years ago I travelled out to Athens for a week at the XXVII Olympiad. Like London, accommodation was pricey so a cheeky e-mail to any Greek person I could find in my company got us somewhere to stay. Our colleague moved back in with his mammy and rented out his one bed apartment for the week to three of us. Unlike this Olympics, back then, the tickets were fairly accessible and we had our choice of events in Athens. We went to some boxing, weightlifting, hockey, volleyball (and no it wasn’t beach volleyball!), rowing and athletics.

In this current Olympics we had just one competitor in the rowing and Sanita Puspure was eliminated yesterday in the quarter final. Back in 2004, there was a lot of talk about medal chances for Irish rowers especially Sam Lynch and Gearóid Towey in the light weight double sculls. By the time the day of the finals came around, our two man team were nowhere to be seen having had issues in the semi-final with making the weight and Towey battling shingles. Years of preparation in a brutally tough sport came down to being sick at the wrong time and to essentially being, to put it cruelly, too heavy for the boat on the day.

We weren’t the only Irish at the regatta in Schinias, close to Marathon, who had turned up on the expectation of seeing our country at the front of the race. There were lots of Irish flags on display and Pat Hickey was on hand to give out the medals but not to any Irish rowers as he had hoped. We got to see the Irish four man compete and they finished sixth. I remember clearly just how disappointing it was not to see an Irish medal win. Unlike being at a football match, where there are two sets of fans, here there were groups of fans with flags from a myriad of nations (Romania, Poland, Denmark, Germany, France) and they all seemed to be winning around us. Meanwhile all the Irish could do was contemplate what might of been.

We spent four nights at the amazing Olympic Stadium sitting under the Santiago Calatrava designed roof. We saw some famous victories; Kenenisa Bekele’s win the 10,000m, Hicham El Guerrouj amazing win in both the 1500m and 5000m, the mens 100m final and we were surrounded by Britons celebrating Kelly Holmes’ incredible 800m and 1500m double.

Meanwhile the Irish weren’t doing so well. Adrian O’Dwyer failed his first height at the high jump and had to sit there for the next two hours watching as his heat played out. Sonia O’Sullivan meanwhile made the final of the 5,000m but came home last. We didn’t win a medal that night but the events of the evening live long in my memory. Here is what I wrote the day after and some quotes from Sonia O’Sullivan:

We had an amazing night cheering on Sonia. Maybe it was a fitting finale to her Olympic career when she essentially got to have a lap of honour around the Olympic Stadium. With 30 minutes to the final, the Irish began to gather at the 250m mark. About 100 of Sonia’s Green Army including many of O’Sullivan’s fellow Irish Olympians cheered her from start to finish. In fact the noise got louder and louder with each lap so by the time she still had one lap to go and the Ethiopian athlete had already won, the whole stadium joined in.

Ireland is the gold medal winner for glorious failures and there will be no other athlete in this games that will get the reception she got. Everyone sung themselves hoarse with plenty of Olé Olés and Fields of Athenry. All the Irish knew we were witnessing the final Olympic race of our greatest every athlete.

As she came by us on the final corner there was a wry smile, a wave and then a kiss blown in the direction of the Irish support. It brought tears to the eyes. Better than a bronze medall…well maybe not! Sometimes I wonder how we would react if we actually won a medal.”

Sonia O’Sullivan (Sunday Tribune): “When I saw it back, that moment when I blew a two-handed kiss to the Irish in the crowd took me by surprise. It put a lump in my throat to see it. It was a spontaneous thing.

Being lapped was an indignity I’d never experienced before. There was only one thing that kept my legs going during those long, lonely laps and that was the encouragement I got from the Irish crowd at the top of the home straight. The only thing I wanted to at that stage was to walk off the track or at least find a hole in it so I could disappear. Yet every time I came around to that top corner, I heard the noise and I thought, ‘Well, if they’re staying, I’m staying.’”

So in Athens we ultimately came away with no medals despite certain expectations. Cian O’Connor would win gold and then have that stripped from him and his horse that failed a drugs test. The closest the Irish maybe got to a winner was Father Neil Horan’s unwanted interruption at the conclusion of the men’s marathon.

For this London 2012 games, the optimistic talk now is of medals in the sailing and the boxing. The expectation on Katie Taylor is immense and not to add to the pressure but I do have tickets for the women’s boxing final! Hopefully Taylor can join O’Sullivan as an Olympic medal winner in front of what will no doubt be a huge Irish contingent in the Excel Arena next week.

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