The Rio Olympic carnival has drawn to a close with one of the greatest memories from the games being the success of two brothers from Skibbereen.
Amidst the lies and scandal, amidst the fears of economic meltdown, crime and a deadly virus; Gary and Paul O’Donovan’s silver medal put Irish rowing on the map and a smile on the face of an Olympic movement in danger of taking itself all too seriously.
The brothers, 23 and 22 years of age, won silver in the lightweight double sculls, securing Ireland’s first medal of the games and the first rowing medal of any colour in the country’s history.
Ordinarily a solitary silver medal would not have garnered anywhere near the same attention the O’Donovans drew, but these were not two ordinary sportsmen.
It was the relaxed way the brothers from West Cork had gone about their work with a disarming sense of humour and self-depreciation that drew the world’s attention and affection.
Whilst American swimmers did their best to quite literally piss on Rio’s parade and Russia’s athletes were forced to stay at home; the O’Donovan’s modesty and honesty in front of the camera, were reminders to the Olympic movement of what sport is ultimately all about. Achievement is great, but achievement at all costs, without any sense of enjoyment quickly fades in our collective memories and fails to inspire participation in the young.
With a camera thrust into their face by RTE at the end of a strength-sapping race in the heat of Rio de Janeiro; the O’Donovan Brothers were quick to remember coach Dominic Casey and the volunteers at the Skibbereen Rowing Club who’d helped them get to the podium, as well as those who may represent Ireland at future Olympics.
The O’Donovans reminded us that sport is all important. Not sport as a results based business or a project, but sport where athletes represent themselves and their communities with pride, honour and above all a sense of infectious enjoyment.
The work ethic of two brothers from Cork who “pulled like dogs” and modestly “tried to go as quick as they could from A to B” gained more appreciation for the fact they did it with a smile on their face and in doing so reminded us that sport should be enjoyed.
Across the Irish Sea, Team GB had a record haul of medals with cyclists Sir Bradley Wiggins, Jason Kenny and Laura Trott leading the gold rush. Yet just 24 years ago, Chris Boardman won Britain’s first cycling medal of any colour for 72 years. What followed, as well as massive lottery investment, was increased participation and a belief that British cycling could take on the world.
The O’Donovans and the volunteers at the Skibbereen Rowing Club receive barely a fraction of the investment seen by Wiggins, Trott, Kenny and Co, instead relying on donations from the public to help improve the facilities of the club founded as recently as 1970.
Gary and Paul O’Donovan have done their club and country proud, been perfect ambassadors for Irish rowing and shown the power of grassroots sport.
If more young Irish athletes answer the O’Donovan’s call and take up rowing, the boys from Cork will have left a legacy far weightier than the medals around their necks.
Comedy Gold? Maybe. But don’t underestimate the achievement of these Skibbereen brothers who are still young enough to compete for many more medals in years to come.