Time Out: Pain game hard to play when the eyes of the world are watching

Rhys McClenaghan became the first Irishman to reach an Olympic gymnastics final, but saw his medal hopes just 10 seconds into his routine. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

MIXED zones can be the strangest of places. Away from the bright lights, the full arenas and the sold out stadiums, these are the dank, darkened rooms backstage where athletes meet the media.

Often penned in behind metal fencing, journalists jockey for position, sucking in their stomachs in anticipation of some statuesque young man or woman probably half their age being reluctantly chaperoned through a set of double doors, the inquisition beginning before they have even stood still. It can be a wholly undignified experience.

Covid has forced the GAA to follow along similar lines these days, with managers and players brought up to a hastily-constructed table in the stand moments after the long whistle goes.

There are plenty who pine for the good old days of open changing rooms, the freedom to roam, soaking up the sing-songs and the smell of Deep Heat before settling on the bench for a chat. Ah, what we wouldn’t give, eh?

However, as Sunday Independent columnist Eamonn Sweeney so eloquently noted a few years back, even rose-tinted glasses can get steamed up over time.

“I had to seek post-match quotes myself back in the day. I never warmed to it,” he wrote, “the attraction of having some buck throw a couple of lines over his shoulder at you while he towelled his balls remained elusive.”

Yet the run of the mill management speak about processes and performance pieces are a world away from the rawness of emotion that comes with success or failure at an Olympic Games.

The temporary absence of a back door is a bitter pill to swallow for the majority of inter-county Gaelic footballers yet still they know that, as tough as it might be to stomach in the immediate aftermath of defeat, there is always next year. The winters are long, but summer will still come.

For Olympians, just getting there often represents the culmination of a life’s work. But making it count in terms of medals, or bringing their very best to the greatest show on earth? That’s something entirely different.

Newtownards gymnast Rhys McClenaghan and Dublin Taekwondoin Jack Woolley travelled to Tokyo as the poster boys of the Irish team. As far as potential podium finishers went, they were two of the country’s biggest hopes.

McClenaghan’s rise has been staggering, from his 2018 Commonwealth Games gold to becoming the first Irish gymnast to reach an Olympic gymnastics final. That in itself is a huge feat, the reward for years of dedication to his craft.

Yet within 10 seconds on the pommel horse, his medal dream was dead. McClenaghan was typically composed and thoughtful in the aftermath, self-assuredness among his greatest assets. Woolley, though, brought the extent of that devastation into sharper focus following his first round exit on the opening day of competition. In the months before he had embraced the expectations that rested on his young shoulders, only for the cruelty of top level sport to stop him in his tracks.

Following a last-gasp defeat to Argentinian Lucas Guzman, Woolley delayed his entry to the mixed zone. Athletes must pass through on their way out of the arena, but there is no obligation to stop.

After half an hour the 22-year-old thought himself ready to talk about the earth-shattering disappointment just suffered, but he wasn’t. How could he be? Tears flowed, broken words were forced out. Even from afar, it was a harrowing watch.

In Rio de Janeiro five years earlier, I was among the Irish press pack who stood behind the fence in stunned silence after witnessing Katie Taylor’s unexpected exit. Having struggled through a TV interview seconds after leaving the ring, her face was buried in a towel when she reached the tented mixed zone out the back of the Riocentro venue.

Never mind the physical toll of a relentless three rounds taking and dishing out punishment between the ropes, Taylor also came into that Olympics against a backdrop of family upheaval, her father/coach/mentor Pete no longer in the corner as he had been on the greatest of days in London four years previous.

How she didn’t just walk on, I will never know. Taylor has never been the most comfortable in front of microphones or cameras, and no-one would have thought any less of her had she headed straight for the door.

Yet there, in her most vulnerable moment, she persisted. Sometimes we would lose her for 20 seconds or more, emotion temporarily hijacking that soft-spoken voice, only to haul herself back off the canvas, attempting to make some kind of sense out of what had just happened.

It was a remarkable show of strength - one that would come as no surprise to anybody who has followed Katie Taylor’s career. Yet while she has gone on to bigger and better things, blazing a trail in women’s boxing ever since, there is no doubt Rio left a hole in her heart that will never heal.

By the time Michael Conlan reached the Irish press corps in the wake of his hugely controversial defeat to Vladimir Nikitin line days later, the fire that fuelled the one-fingered salute at ringside was beginning to smoulder.

Disgust, a raging sense of injustice, he articulated every part of it. But the hurt that would override it all required no words. In the four years since a 20-year Conlan claimed bronze in London, he had spurned numerous lucrative offers to join the professional ranks, going all-in on a gold medal dream that would be ripped away by darker forces at play.

Tonight the west Belfast man bids to move a step closer to a world title shot, headlining a Feile fight night at Falls Park, a stone’s throw from where he was born and raised. Rio took something from him, and Taylor, but it also provided a lesson in resilience that stood to them upon their new beginning.

For the rest of us watching on, those moments when elite athletes bare their souls offer a window into what it all means, the exhilarating highs and the crushing low. Everyone wants to win, but everyone can’t – yet all deserve our respect for the journey that brought them there.

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