We tend to look at Olympic Games through the glass prism of the rose-tinted glasses. I remember seeing my first colour TV while watching the athletics at the Munich Olympics. It was the era of the flares, the locks. It was a rare look at events that happened somewhere else across the world and we were watching it. Remember these were days not long after the wonderment of the moon landings. Our brains were sponges for saturation of colour, of exoticism. The only live events on television were All-Ireland semis and finals, the FA cup finals, the European Cup finals and the Eurovision.
Olympics were anticipated with great glee. As kids, we’d be Eamonn Coghlan, Lasse Viren, Alberto Juantorena, Steve Ovett, Seb Coe. Medals were not expected for Ireland. A successful Olympics for Irish swimming would be if nobody drowned. It was the era of the East German doping programmes, when the strength and masculinity of the athletes was observed and tolerated. It was the era of if you walked into an East German changing room, you screamed.
Olympics brought characters and grudges. Coe and Ovett. Decker and Zola Budd, Flo Jo, Lewis, Johnson, Sonia and the Chinese, Coghlan and anyone who finished third. Our lives were measured in Olympics — Munich, Montreal, Moscow, LA, Seoul, Barcelona and so on. We didn’t care about Winter Olympics because this was long before the Celtic Tiger when even pale Paddies from Leitrim became expert downhill skiers.
Tomorrow night, the Rio Olympic Games will open in typically spectacular Brazilian style. There’ll be razzmatazz and lots of flesh on show as Copacabana comes to life, but it cannot hide the fact that this has to be the Olympic Games for which there seems to be the smallest appetite. Ever.
And it is sad. A bit like when you discover the Santa secret. You wished you retained the innocence forever. We tend to look back now on those Olympic Games with an air of nostalgia, but if truth be told they were as corrupt and overhung by terrorism fears as the Rio ones are tomorrow night.
Sport on such a grand scale has always been ripe for cheats to prosper given the proper backing. Who would have thought that the systematic doping of the GDR and Russian athletes of the 1970s would be repeated on such a grand scale again. Who would have thought that scenes reminiscent from a Bond movie would be used to fool the testers at Sochi? Who would have thought that the International Olympic Committee would stand for it and allow that country to take part? And in doing that, they just killed the games for many.
There will be cheats running and jumping and horseriding and swimming and weightlifting in the games that start tomorrow. And many of the victor’s medals will be devalued. Our own Olive Loughnane was such a victim. And although the gracious Loughrea woman was most dignified when she recently received her gold medal, nothing could ever replace getting it on the day and benefiting from the lutrative endorsements that being a world champion would bring.
No doubt there will be athletes who will sit on the lower podiums in the coming weeks who will in the years ahead get retrospective medals. And while we know that, we cannot wonder at the marvellous achievements the way we once did. Perhaps we were naive, but our innocence was robbed in this country when we saw our champions downed. One Olympic gold medal stripped from us; others, perhaps the ones we were most proud of, restrospectively sullied and devalued.
Across the globe there are athletes who were the best in their sport at the time of an Olympics who were cheated out of glory, and who have had to accept that all their lives since. I abhor such cheating and the financial doping that makes many modern football clubs deem their success as genuine success. But to many fans, success can often be accepted at any price.
The world needs a good Olympics. Like with all the major sporting events, we all need to sit down in places across the globe and simultaneously share the joy of seeing the limits of human excellence being stretched.
This weekend in Galway, thousands will run through the streets for the traditional Streets of Galway 8k. At the front will be the elite runners. but the vast majority of runners will be people like myself, just running for the fun of it, just for the love of it, and running for a cause.
It is that sheer love of sport, the desire to kick a rolling ball, to jump a fence, to scythe the water, to lift a weight, that will ultimately preserve the love of sport in our hearts rather than a devalued Olympic brand run by autocrats.
Enjoy the Olympics, but also get out and shout on the runners in the Streets of Galway. And run and jump and swim and love it.