At times, the Rio Olympics have seemed like a violently simmering pot, one that threatens to boil over violently at any moment. The Games began under a cloud of uncertainty and tension due to the political instability of Brazil, the Zika virus, and the feeling among many that the IOC had let down clean athletes by failing to ban all Russians from competing. The first few days were no better for Ireland, with Michael O'Reilly being sent home and the ticket touting scandal. As the games got underway, we have had athletes booed by crowds, bickering between competitors, and performances that have raised eyebrows due to their sheer implausibility.
'I’m here to think about Ciara Mageean and what she can do in this vest' - the Down woman is determined! https://t.co/QKfPfsaCgl
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) August 13, 2016
On Friday night, Almaz Ayana absolutely obliterated the 10,000 metres world record in winning the gold medal, breaking the world record by about 15 seconds -a world record set by one of the famous 'Ma's Army' athletes from China and one that was generally acknowledged as the most dirty in distance running. In the aftermath, Sonia O'Sullivan wasn't convinced, and spoke on RTE about her reluctance to get too excited about the result, saying that "you question it". Some reacted to O'Sullivan by calling her sour; some disagreed, but explained their reasoning-it was an exceptional race in that seven national records were set. A fast time was inevitable.
I weighed in initially, and pointed to other examples of athletes who have produced exceptional performances that have been questioned for a variety of reasons.
But then, I realised something: I didn't want to engage.
I didn't want to engage in a debate about whether or not Ayana was legitimate. I didn't want to read any more about Sun Yang or Yulia Efimova. I didn't want to spend time arguing about what or who or how to believe.
I thought of the O'Donovan brothers, their ebullient charm and their sheer gutsiness in the pressure cooker of an Olympic final. I thought of Paddy Barnes, buying pints for supporters and asking Rory McIlroy if he needed a caddy just hours after the most disappointing loss of his career. I thought of the Irish hockey team, how they qualified for a tournament with the odds stacked so far against them that their very presence in Rio was a gold medal in itself; how they, incredibly, nearly snuck through the group. I thought of Sinead Lynch, a mother of three and competing in her first Olympics aged 39.
I thought of Ciara Mageean, whose name I heard echo for years around mucky fields outside Belfast in Ulster schools cross country events and who is starting to get the reward all her hard work deserves, after years of frustration and injury. Of Mark English, who has had a severely testing fifteen months or so for all sorts of reasons, breezing into the semi-finals of the 800 metres. Of Steven Donnelly's cry of defiance -"We're still in this!"-and of Scott Evans' outpouring of emotion and delight after becoming the first Irishman to win an Olympic badminton match.
Sinead Lynch is a qualified pharmacist, doctor, a mother of three and in an Olympic final. So what have you done with your life?
— Kieran Cunningham (@KCsixtyseven) August 11, 2016
And I thought: to hell with the negativity. To hell with dopers, with doubt, with focusing on what is wrong with the Olympics. For now, at least. Yes, we'll acknowledge that dopers are there. Yes, we'll bemoan their presence at these Olympics when they're up against Irish athletes. But, although maybe it is just armchair sentimentality, I like to think that all of the athletes I have named have epitomised what is truly great about this marvelous spectacle. The humanity, the pride, the joy, the dedication to something so powerful that you put your existence on hold to strive for it, to perfect it, to be the best you can possibly be.
The shadows may lengthen, the sky darken. But there's still a hell of a lot to live for when it comes to the Olympic Games.