Stephen Martin talks Rio with 100 days until Olympic lift-off
STEPHEN MARTIN competed in three Olympic Games, winning a gold medal with the Great Britain hockey team in Seoul in 1988 and a bronze in Los Angeles in 1984. Nowadays, he is chief executive of the Olympic Council of Ireland. With 100 days to go until the start of the Rio Games and as the Olympic torch begins its journey across Brazil, John Flack has been talking to the 57-year-old county Down man...
John Flack: As usual, there seem to be concerns over the preparedness or otherwise of a country to host an Olympic Games. Having been to Rio yourself on many occasions, can you update us and have you any concerns based on what you are hearing and what you have seen?
Stephen Martin: No. We are confident that Rio 2016 will be another superbly organised Olympic Games for athletes and performance support staff. Test events have been underway for the past two years - there’s been a lot of positive feedback from those taking part and valuable learning accrued by the Rio 2016 organising committee.
JF: Having seen the facilities and infrastructure first hand, whether work in progress or otherwise, just how good an Olympic Games can Rio deliver, in your opinion?
SM: Yes, it will be a great Games and I’m sure Brazil will be very proud of the fact they organised the first Olympic Games in South America.
JF: What will be the athletes’ accommodation be like in the Olympic village?
SM: We have our accommodation block agreed following negotiations with Rio 2016. It’s the prime location in the village - within easy walking distance to the main dining hall and transport mall. That’s important as all the athletes obviously need to conserve their energy and, with that in mind, all our apartments are located in the lower stories of a block. Most of the athletes will share accommodation with other members of Team Ireland but, if for example, someone were to fall ill, there is a contingency whereby they can be alone. Some athletes prefer to be alone to prepare properly for their respective events and we try to respect that. Once the various competitors’ events are over, they are accommodated separately from those who are still in competition.
JF: I’m sure you’d accept that the days of Baron Coubertin, the founder of the IOC, who suggested in 1894 that taking part rather than winning should be at the heart of the Games, are long gone. Some might suggest the Games have completely lost their ‘purity’. What are your views on that?
SM: Even in Coubertin’s time there were those whose priority was to be the best they could be - for some that meant winning medals - for others it was qualifying as one of the best athletes from their country. Countries whose governments put substantial resources into high performance sport expect a return on
JF: Tennis, association football and now golf with highly-paid professionals competing are a feature of the Games. What are your views on the fact professional sports are now part and parcel of the Games?
SM: Tennis and golf want to be part of the Olympic Games sports programme to help spread the game worldwide due to the exposure and resources the international federations receive after the games from the IOC.
JF: Former US Masters champion Adam Scott has suggested the golf event will be an ‘exhibition’ event and Rory McIlroy has said his priority remains the Majors. Do you welcome golf’s addition apart from the fact it will give Ireland a chance to secure more medals given our standing in golf?
SM: I’m delighted to see golf included. Many top athletes either don’t qualify or decide for personal reasons not to take part in sporting events. Adam Scott is no different. Ireland produces some of the world’s best golfers and I’m sure Team Ireland will enjoy a new positive dynamic as a result.
JF: So far, approximately how many Irish athletes, in the generic sense, have qualified and how many more can we expect if all goes to plan? Approximately how many athletes will be in the Ireland team in total?
SM: Sixty-six have qualified to date from 11 sports and we expect 80-plus in total from 14 sports to be going to Rio. Rugby Sevens will have final qualification in June for the remaining place for Europe for both the men’s and women’s events. The Ireland’s women team are getting valuable competition in the world series league. They will host the final qualification event in Dublin so will hopefully benefit from home advantage.
JF: Where do our best medal chances lie and do you see boxing having a monopoly once again as far as Irish medallists are concerned?
SM: Historically, boxing provided the best opportunity for medals, but we will have other sports capable of pushing for medals as we did in London 2012, our most successful Games to date.
We are confident that Katie Taylor will qualify and she has been a leading role model for women’s boxing throughout the world since London 2012 when she won gold. However, partly because of that, the competition has become tougher, but she is certainly capable of winning gold again. We also have high hopes for Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes, whose expressed aim is to win gold. They both enjoy the craic and they are great to have around the team, but they are extremely dedicated young men as well and highly talented individuals who have also been great role models for the sport.
JF: I’m sure from a personal perspective you must be delighted to see the men’s hockey team featuring at an Olympics for the first time since 1908? Just how difficult will it be for them as amateurs to compete with the increased professionalisation of the sport?
SM: Our hockey team are as prepared as paid team sports. They may not be paid, but their professional approach, their passion to make history - and the fact that they have to make more sacrifices to stay in touch with bigger-salaried-country players shows just how good our team is at the moment. They go into the competition as European bronze medallists having beaten hosts England, whose budget is £16million for the period 2013-16.