TOKYO 2020 REVISITED

BY IAN O’RIORDAN

Nothing can and never will rival that moment you first step inside an Olympic Stadium. Nothing can prepare you for it either, especially not one as magnificently set and well ordained as presented to us in Tokyo for the Games of the 2020 Olympiad.

Only this being July of 2021, the postponed Games – which at times appeared doomed to fall victim to the still clear and present danger of Covid-19 – opening for us now inside a virtually empty stadium exactly one year late and yet fervently better than never.

That my first step came 57 years after the previous Opening Ceremony here, for the 1964 Olympics, brought a shivering chill like ice water in the veins even in the searing heat and humidity of that summer night in Tokyo: 57 years after an Olympics where among the then 93 competing nations was an Irish team of just 25 athletes, my dad among them.

His 84th birthday was just a few weeks before, and one of the last things he said to me before leaving for Tokyo was to look out for that spot somewhere on the backstretch where in his heat of the 5,000 metres he got dropped for the first time, with three laps to go, and his Olympic dream fell apart. Still 57 years later he talks about that experience with love and regret and other things in between, a lasting life experience like no other.

This time round, among the 206 nations, was a record strong Irish team of 116 in all, across a suitable diverse 19 sports, hopes and expectations running parallel. The journey to these Games was unlike any before, magnifying the sense of accomplishment in simply getting this far.

That boxers Brendan Irvine and Kellie Harrington jointly carried the Irish flag into that Opening Ceremony, bowing majestically with their first step, was suitably ordained too – Harrington’s gold medal victory two weeks later, along with bronze for Aidan Walsh, further extending boxing as Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport.

It set the tone in other ways too – a calm and spirited approach that would be the mark of these Games for so many, not least on water down Sea Forest Waterway, where Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy got to write a special chapter of their own, the first Olympic champions, the first gold medal winners, for Irish rowing, and coming just 24 hours after the women’s four won themselves the bronze.

These are rare achievements, immortal in your own event, and a lasting place in the reels of Irish sporting history. Before Tokyo, only six Irish people, four men and two women, had ever experienced it before, Olympic champion, Olympic gold medal winner, since the country was first allowed to compete for itself as the Free State in time for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. 

What stays with me as much as witnessing that moment of triumph is the utterly compelling mix of emotions that fell in between, the tears of joy and tears of dejection, and the realisation perhaps that for all of us who got to Tokyo it will prove a lasting life experience like no other. Sayonara, sayonara. 

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