The Ireland men's hockey team is on the cusp of qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. They'd be in rare company in the history of Ireland at the Olympics. When it comes to team sports at the Games, Ireland’s record is short and, if we’re being honest, not that impressive. We’ll start at the start.
Ireland's appearances at the Olympics in team sports
1924 – Football
Not only was the 1924 Olympics in Paris our first Games as an independent nation, it also saw the first ever international football match for the Irish Free State. Having received a bye in the 1st round, we beat Bulgaria 1-0 in Colombes with Paddy Duncan of St James Gate getting our first ever international goal. In the quarter finals, Ireland played the Netherlands but were beaten 2-1 after extra time; Frank Ghent of Athlone Town with the goal. For a nation so young, reaching the quarter finals was quite an achievement.
1924 – Water Polo
In the 1920 Olympics Dubliner Noel Purcell was part of the British team to win gold. After independence, he captained the Irish team in the 1924 games. (In between he represented Ireland in rugby too.) Drawn against Austria in the first round, Ireland won by walk over before losing to Czechoslovakia 4-2 in the quarter finals.
1928 – Water Polo
Without Purcell, Ireland returned to the Olympics in 1928 in Amsterdam. Players like James Brady, Charles Fagan and Michael O’Connor all returned for their second tilt at the games but with no more success than the first trip. In our only game, Ireland lost to Belgium by a scoreline of 11-1. We haven’t returned to the Games in Water Polo since.
1948 – Basketball
Ireland made its Olympic debut in basketball in London in 1948 led by Harry Boland. Harry’s family and business interests would gain him more fame in Ireland than his basketball career but in their 2013 Irish Independent obituary they recalled his thoughts on the Olympic experience;
I was studying to be a chartered accountant, at that time they were called article clerks. I was articled into my brother's firm, as was Charles Haughey, and we went on to set up business together afterwards. I had to take my three weeks' holidays to go to the Olympics. It was the first time I was ever out of Ireland. Of course, we were completely outclassed in all our games
1948 - Football
After a 24 year absence Ireland returned in football in 1948. No longer named the Irish Free State, Ireland's amateur team was made up primarily of players from Bohemians. Unfortunately Ireland lost 3-1 to the Netherlands in the preliminary round game played in Portsmouth's Fratton Park. The Irish scorer that day was Brendan O'Kelly who went on to become chairman of Bord Iascaigh Mhara in later life.
And that's the sum total of Ireland's appearances at the Olympics in team sports. We know that there are team elements in Equestrian events and others but those sports all have individual events too. The above 5 instances are the only times Ireland have competed in purely team events at the Olympics.
Near misses and other sports
Let's have a quick look at some close calls and near misses regarding Ireland's participation in the Olympics in team sports.
These sports may have their passionate followers here in Ireland but the national teams have never really had much footprint in European circles. At the moment Irish teams don't even attempt to qualify for the European championships.
The game has a pretty low standing in Irish sporting culture now. The last time an Irish team appeared on the senior international stage was when the men took part in the European Championships in 1966 and 1970 (finishing 15th both times).
Since 1992, qualification is made through the European Under 21 championships and Ireland haven't come close to qualifying in that format. In 1988 a League of Ireland XI tried to qualify with little success. In 1960 Ireland finished 2nd behind Great Britain (ahead of Netherlands) in a round robin qualifier. We left football alone for a while after that.
Ireland haven't threatened to qualify for the Olympics since invitation places were stopped. In 2005, Ireland was close to qualifying to Division A (the top level) of Euro Basket qualifiers but heartbreakingly lost to Denmark in a 2 legged play off. The men's senior international team broke up not long after that as financial worries threatened Basketball Ireland.
Only this summer, Ireland's womens 3x3 team reched the quarter finals in the European Games before being knocked out by eventual champions Russia. If 3x3 is added to the 2020 games, who knows, maybe we will have a team?
Up to 1988, Olympic spots were by invitation only and we wouldn't get one. Several lads from Ulster would play for GB and win medals including the current CEO of the Olympic Council of Ireland Stephen Martin in 1988. In 1908, Ireland won the silver medal in hockey losing the final to England. Britain is credited with both medals in the table.
In 2008's qualifier there was a 3 way tie between New Zealand, Argentina and Ireland but goal difference let the other 2 play off for the Olympic spot. In 2012 Ireland were leading South Korea in Dublin before Korea came back to win 3-2 and claim their spot in the Olympics. The Irish men were minutes away from the Games.
The women also lost a final qualifer in 2012 but they at least were well beaten 4-1 away to Belgium. Of course we know the women's team lost an effective Olympic qualification play off in a shoot out to China last month in the World Hockey League.
After their exploits at the World Hockey League semi final, Ireland's men are very close to qualifying for the Rio Games. They're ranked 10th in the WHL standings so need a couple of things to fall their way. Specifically we need 3 of the following to happen
- Argentina or Canada win the Pan-American Games (very likely - July)
- Brazil finish 7th or 8th in Pan-American Games (likely - July)
- One of Ireland, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany or Spain wins EuroHockey (Extremely likely - August). We'll qualify direct if we win.
- Australia win the Oceania Cup (very likely - October)
It's looking good and we should be even closer by the end of the month. As we've explained it'll be only the 6th time Ireland has been represented in team sports at the Olympics.
Rugby 7s makes it's Olympic debut in Rio but despite the popularity of rugby here, the IRFU only decided to attempt qualification this year for men's and women's teams. The men have a tougher task than the women. They've won every game at Division C and B level so far but all that has done has qualified them for the final European repechage tournament with the likes of Italy, Georgia, Portugal and Romania.
Some of whom have been playing on the World Circuit. The must finish in the top 3 here to qualify for the final Olympic repechage. At this stage 11 teams will have already qualified so the best-placed no qualifiers from each continent play off for one final spot. Teams like Samoa are likely to be here and they've shown their commitment to sevens rugby for far longer than Ireland
The women's team have a better chance of qualifying, if still an extremely tough road ahead of them. At the recent European Championships, Ireland finished 5th. 2 of those ahead of them are qualified for the Games (France and England/GB). At the final European repechage, the Irish women will be seeded 2nd. They need to finish top 3 to go forward to final Olympic repechage (same format as the men). There they will face off with 15 other nations for one final spot. As there are less women playing at the top level than men, Ireland has a great chance of qualifying in future years but 2016 is probably too soon for this team.