Cian O’Connor jumped for gold at the equestrian events in Athens to send the Irish tricolor aloft for the first time in the Olympic Games. The 24-year-old County Meath show jumper won the individual event with a magnificent clear round on Waterford Crystal to defeat defending world champion Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil.
O’Connor’s epic performance provided welcome relief from one of the most disappointing Irish team displays ever at an Olympic Games. Until the show jumping win Ireland failed to rate in a variety of events and Cork sprinter Cathal Lombard was suspended for failing an EPO drugs test before the Games even began.
In Lombard’s absence a total of 49 Irish athletes attended the Games and, while public expectations of medals were relatively low, the biggest hopes of a top-three finish rested in equestrian, rowing, walking, and boxing events. Outside O’Connor, however, most Irish participants performed below their best and found themselves out of the reckoning long before the main events were underway. As each competitor fell by the wayside, Irish fans had little to cheer about.
Sonia O’Sullivan, competing in her fourth Olympic Games, qualified for the final of the 5,000 meters, but was bitterly disappointed to finish last. “I think I’ve had my day,” she said despondently afterwards, hinting that her farewell to the Olympics might signal an end to her illustrious track career.
If the Cobh athlete was off-form, other Irish participants experienced a mixture of below-par performances as well as plain bad luck. Gillian O’Sullivan, a real prospect in the 20 km walk, was forced to withdraw from Athens with a hip injury, so she did not take part. Another casualty was 50 km walker Jamie Costin, who was seriously injured in a car crash before his event. The 27-year-old athlete was flown home to Dublin amid fears were that a spinal injury sustained in the accident could threaten his athletic career. ♦