Since Ireland started competing in the Olympic Games in 1924, we have been heavily reliant on boxing as our source of podium placings. The Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) have placed great emphasis over the last decade in broadening our potential medal platforms. As we move past the mid-point of this current Olympic cycle, I preview what Irish fans can expect from our athletes across a multitude of disciplines:
Following Rob Heffernan’s retirement, Thomas Barr is now Ireland’s only truly world-class athlete. The Waterford man finished a stunning fourth place at the last Olympics and will hope to challenge for a medal again in Tokyo. Barr won a terrific bronze medal at the recent European Championships in Berlin and, provided he stays injury-free, has the potential to beat anyone on his day. Elsewhere, Mark English and Ciara Mageean will expect to progress through at least one qualification round and both are capable of making the final of the 800m and 1500m respectively.
Since the vastly experienced and reputable coach, Jon Rudd, was appointed as Swim Ireland’s High-Performance Director in 2016, Irish swimming has experienced a sharp upturn in fortunes. This was epitomised last year at the World Junior Championships, where the prodigiously talented Mona McSharry and Conor Ferguson claimed Ireland’s first ever medals at that grade. Whilst the fruits of Rudd’s work, and the broader revival he has instigated, may only truly blossom in Paris 2024, McSharry and Ferguson will be confident of strong showings in Tokyo, as will Shane Ryan, himself a bronze medallist at the recent European Championships.
The O’Donovan brothers were the Irish story of the last Olympic Games. Their form since Rio has been steady and they will undoubtedly strive to go one better in Tokyo and claim gold. Further, Sanita Puspure has performed exceptionally in 2018 and, having recently been crowned world champion, is very much a genuine medal contender. Aside from that, Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll have found the transition from lightweight, where they were so dominant, to heavyweight very difficult and would likely be satisfied with mere qualification for Tokyo.
Given Ireland’s excellent tradition in show jumping, a return of only one Olympic medal to date can be deemed a massive underachievement. However, the 2017 appointment of Rodrigo Pessoa as chef d’equipe looks set to reverse our fortunes. Pessoa has revolutionised structures within Irish show jumping, using his vast experience and world-class management skills to turn our team into a world-class force again. As reigning European champions, Ireland look primed to medal in the team event in Tokyo, whilst Bertram Allen will be among the favourites for the individual gold medal.
Elsewhere, Ireland’s Eventing team will look to back up fine performances in the last two Olympics and may even challenge for a medal should recent improvements in Dressage be continued.
Undisputedly Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport, Irish boxing has experienced a turbulent last two years. Following damaging results and controversies in Rio, Ireland’s golden generation of boxers promptly switched to the professional ranks. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to be optimistic that the Irish team will take home a couple of medals in Tokyo, not least due to the retention of Zaur Antia and appointment of Bernard Dunne as Irish managers. Joe Ward, team captain, will expect to finally secure an elusive Olympic medal, whilst Brendan Irvine, Sean McComb and Kellie Harrington will be confident of podium placings.
Arthur Lanigan O’Keefe and Natalya Coyle have brought the obscure sport of modern pentathlon firmly into public consciousness. Both finished in the top ten in Rio and have ratcheted up numerous World Cup medals since then. The dynamic duo undoubtedly possesses the required belief and mental fortitude to win on the Olympic stage, but the opening day of fencing will likely prove pivotal to their chances.
In sailing, Annalise Murphy’s switch from the Laser Radial boat to the 49er FX renders her medal hopes non-existent. Our men’s Rugby Sevens team are improving rapidly and could contend for a top-eight placing. Oliver Dingley will aim to better his eighth-place finish from Rio in the diving pool, whilst Dan Martin and Sam Bennett will be in the mix in the highly unpredictable cycling road race. Rory McIlroy, should he choose to represent Ireland this time, is a formidable competitor on the golf course. Finally, teenage gymnastics sensation Rhys McClenaghan currently has the beating of an Olympic champion, Max Whitlock, and will hope to add to his Commonwealth and European gold medals in Tokyo.
By Jack Stokes – Sports Edition