Saliva tubes, emotion and NI's 'what ifs' - reflections on an Olympics like no other

By Nigel RinglandBBC Sport NI in Tokyo
Sunday's closing ceremony brought the curtain down on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Sunday's closing ceremony brought the curtain down on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

It seems fitting that at the Olympics of Tokyo 2020, held in 2021, it would be the saliva tube that would play a huge role in the Games experience.

The daily Covid-19 'spit' test became second nature to participants and stakeholders.

On the final day of the Games the IOC and Tokyo Organising Committee reported that since 1 July, 624,364 of these tests were carried out with 138 positive results - a 0.02% positivity rating.

And that may be the key statistic that these Olympic Games will be remembered for.

For the past 18 months, the argument raged as to whether the Tokyo Games could or should go ahead in the middle of a global pandemic and, if they did, could they be held safely?

In public, the International Olympic Committee was bullish in its insistence that they could, although you were left wondering what they really thought in private.

The reality is that these Olympics have been different. They were always going to be. These are the fourth Games I've reported from and I have nothing but admiration for the athletes who, for so long, had to cope with the uncertainty as to whether they were going to go ahead or not.

Even travelling out to the Japanese capital, no-one knew what to expect from a Games played out under a state of emergency.

A fast-spreading Covid outbreak in the Athletes Village could have halted the Games in their tracks. How would the athletes respond to the daily testing and being confined to their living quarters? Would everyone stick to the rules? The answer, with a few exceptions, was yes.

Having a temperature check and being presented with some plastic gloves on the way into breakfast became the norm, as did the wearing of facemasks everywhere you went, indoors or outdoors and in temperatures that rose to almost 40 degrees.

Medal winners celebrating with masks on was a regular theme of the Tokyo Olympics
Medal winners celebrating with masks on was a regular theme of the Tokyo Olympics

There was the difficulty in maintaining social distancing in busy work environments and the aforementioned daily 'spit' test, and in getting around while not being allowed to use public or the provided Games transportation. There was no sightseeing allowed or eating out in restaurants and bars, so dinner was delivered to the hotel lobby every night.

There was also the spectre of being 'pinged' at any stage and ushered off into isolation for 14 days. It led to some stressful moments.

Athletes were only allowed to stay for a maximum of 48 hours after their competition. There was none of the usual partying and many were back home watching the final few days from the comfort of their sofas.

It was challenging but understandable given the circumstances and, despite the frustrations at times, it was a unique experience with incredible sport dominating the headlines.

The athletes of the world had been kept waiting a year but, when their time came, they produced some remarkable moments. Their performances were uplifting, gripping and in a lot of cases record-breaking. There were shocks, photo finishes and moments of outstanding sportsmanship. And, as always, the 17 days of Olympic competition provided a rollercoaster of emotions.

There were 31 competitors from Northern Ireland in Tokyo, the most at any Olympics, and to put it in perspective there were only nine in Beijing 13 years ago. They proudly represented Team Ireland and Team GB.

Statistically, there was only one medal, which was one more than Rio five years ago, but in truth there were higher hopes for a greater return.

Olympic medals are not just handed out to anyone, they have to be earned and, for many of our local athletes, the experience of a first Olympics will now be banked, learned from and hopefully used to be even better prepared in Paris in just three years' time.

Belfast boxer Aidan Walsh won bronze, cheered on enthusiastically by sister Michaela
Belfast boxer Aidan Walsh won bronze, cheered on enthusiastically by sister Michaela

There were a number of 'if only' moments.

If only Rhys McClenaghan's finger had not got stuck under the handle of the pommel horse.

If only Rory McIlroy's putt at the 72nd hole had not slipped by the cup (although wasn't it nice to see Rory finally embrace the Olympics).

If only Rebecca Shorten and the GB women's four could have held on for 250 more metres.

If only Judge 3 had seen Kurt Walker's quarter-final bout the way two others saw it.

All of the above could have been medal-winning performances.

There were other successes such as swimmer Daniel Wiffen who smashed his own Irish records in both the 800m and 1500m freestyle and steeplechaser Eilish Flanagan who set a personal best in the Olympic Stadium. Along with rower Hannah Scott, swimmers Jack McMillan and Danielle Hill and cyclist Mark Downey, they should all come back stronger in Paris.

Northern Ireland has some outstanding young athletes.

There were also obvious disappointments. While Ireland's rowers produced the gold medal-winning performance of Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy and the bronze of the women's four, it was a head scratcher not only for the likes of us watching, but for Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne themselves as to why they never found their world championship medal-winning form in the men's double sculls.

It's hard to be critical of Doyle, who returned to the wards in Daisy Hill and the Ulster Hospital during 2020 to help in a much bigger fight than that on the waters off Tokyo Bay.

Northern Ireland medal hope Rhys McClenaghan suffered disappointment in Tokyo
Northern Ireland medal hope Rhys McClenaghan suffered disappointment in Tokyo

Patrick Huston is a much more accomplished archer than his results showed as too is shooter Kirsty Barr, and injury deprived Ciara Mageean of running to her full potential.

Elite sport is a tough business.

Having a front-row seat means you get to see the raw emotions immediately after the heat of battle.

When the Ireland women's hockey team were eliminated, short of their initial goal of reaching the quarter-finals, there was a real feeling that it was the end of an era and a journey over the last six years that for any of us lucky enough to be along for the ride has been an incredible experience that included that World Cup silver medal and qualification for a first Olympics.

That last game was the 317th appearance for Ireland for Shirley McCay, Ireland's most capped sportswoman. It was also, most likely, her last.

"I've been lucky to play with some unbelievably talented players, a lot more talented than myself and for the last few years we've stood on the shoulders of giants and that has made our jobs an absolute pleasure," said the girl from Drumquin, as the tears flowed.

"And I hope that back home everyone can see how possible this is for every young boy and girl who has a dream, to make it."

Then there was McClenaghan, who was looking to add an Olympic medal to his Commonwealth, European and World haul.

It wasn't to be as his pommel routine came to an undignified end, but in what must surely have been his most devastating moment he appeared in front of me and the camera.

"I'm standing here in front of you an Olympian, an Olympic finalist, the first ever from Ireland," he said proudly. "To be honest I'll be walking away from this a more dangerous man than ever before because with the disappointment of this comes an incredible amount of motivation and inspiration. I'll be spending more time in the gym, I will be more inspired."

What the audience didn't see was that just after we finished the interview, Rhys asked me how I was getting on at the Games. Even after his disappointment he still had a thought for someone else.

Shirley McCay and the Ireland hockey team failed to reach the quarter finals
Shirley McCay and the Ireland hockey team failed to reach the quarter finals

And then there were the Walshes - Aidan and Michaela. When you get them together you realise how much fun they are to be around. Michaela was the favoured of the sister-brother combination to win a medal, but she lost her opening bout in a tight split decision.

But she didn't hang her head. The next day there she was, up in the gallery, shouting encouragement for the entire duration of Aidan's opening contest.

"You can hear her in Belfast," joked her little brother.

It's a special bond and when Michaela told me before flying out to Japan that she would be happier for Aidan if he won a medal than she would be for herself, it was the truth.

Aidan went ahead and clinched a bronze medal, his only blemish an over-exuberant celebration that cost him a chance at an Olympic final.

Hopefully he'll get that opportunity in Paris but, in the meantime, they both deserve that Chinese and a can of Coke that they said they want on their return home.

Shirley, Rhys, Aidan and Michaela - all a credit to themselves, their families and their sport.

My overriding thought at the end of the Games is that if Covid never existed these would have been a spectacular few weeks, played out in beautiful venues and supported by the Japanese people who have been nothing but welcoming to their guests. If they didn't want us in their country they certainly never showed it.

Yes, of course, spectators were missed, but that doesn't devalue an Olympic medal or a record breaking-performance or the right to call yourself an Olympian.

In fact, because of the pandemic, these Olympics may well, in time, be highly regarded for other reasons.

The world was able to come together in the midst of the global challenges that exist and do it in as safe an environment that could be reasonably expected. Maybe they will always be regarded as the Covid Olympics but maybe they will be remembered as the Games that defied the pandemic and the world was able to move forward.

It wasn't perfect and it was challenging, but the resolve and resilience was there to make it happen.

It was an experience like no other.

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