Brazil-based 2012 Irish sports journalist of the year and the sports that really matter in Rio - and those that don't
Paddy Barnes hates flying. So much so that in February 2015 in Heathrow, he wanted out.
While boxing for Italia Thunder, he found himself awaiting yet another plane, this time to Kazakhstan. It was there he came across a group of Celtic fans on their way back to Belfast after an away-day game in the San Siro, and all he thought was about going home. "I had to lie down, I was so close to tears, I was there thinking I'm about to die," he recalled. "And on board I can't even have a sip of water. That stress. When I landed it was eight at night, the weigh-in was the next morning, I didn't even want to train, I was shattered. But I know what I have to do and I just do it."
The reason Barnes continues on though is the same reason most Olympians face their physical and mental fears. A livelihood; the glory; proving people wrong; being the best they can ultimately be.
Like Dattu Bhokanal, India's only qualified rower who until recently didn't know how to swim and had a fear of drowning. From a drought-hit region of huge poverty, he had to look for work further afield when his father died in 2011, while his mother is now paralysed. He talks about a medal in Rio being of financial assistance and has one more wish - "I would ask for water in my village."
Like Kayla Harrison, an American gold-medal judoko from 2012, who was sexually abused by her coach starting at 13 years of age. After reporting it, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail, but she continued on, moving away to train under her father and a new coach. "I always say to myself, there’s no such thing as a bad day, just a bad moment," she later said amidst many good moments.
It matters that much.
Irish boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan ©INPHO/James Crombie
They might be extreme cases but the Olympics is chock full of fascinating stories and fascinating people, full of tales of individual triumph that have gotten athletes to the point they can reach their pinnacle via their sport. It's part of what makes the Games so different and unlike the mass-marketed world of big-money sport, there's a link between them and us, and an accessibility that makes their triumphs and disasters all the more real. Indeed wander about a Games and almost exclusively around every corner will be someone biggest moment of somebody's life.
Contrast that with sports like golf and tennis and football though. They are only here of course because of the greed of the International Olympic Committee who have long since sold out their meaning for the sake of yet more money. But the great tragedy isn't that the likes of Neymar and Novak and Bubba are in, it's that their presence takes away from the people to whom this means everything. Instead too many eyes are on those who never leave the limelight but whose interest in the Games varies between limited and none.
It all started to go wrong when the Dream Team shacked up and has been growing steadily since then with the next step threatening to be professional boxers. Staying away from the unity of the athletes village, without the need for more money or success, they never worked for Olympic success and it's a long way from the zenith of their profession. It's that disinterest which led golfers like Rory McIlroy to bluff their way through an initial excuse about the Zika virus, before finally admitting the Olympics just doesn't matter to them. The problem was we knew that would be the case with golf as soon as it was admitted, and we know that about other sports too. But short-term gain is everything to the IOC who ignore the down side against the financial upside.
Kayla Harrison of U.S.A. reacts after defeating Marhinde Verkerk of Netherlands, during their women's under 78 kg category third place match at the World Judo Championships in Paris Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. Kayla Harrison won bronz. (Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Better late than never, McIlroy finally surmised the situation for his sport and for others in a similar situation. "I don't think it's embarrassing for the game because most other athletes dream their whole lives of competing in the Olympics, winning an Olympic gold, and we haven't," he said. "We dream of winning Claret Jugs and we dream of winning green jackets . I've said to people I have four Olympic Games a year. That's my pinnacle. That's what I play for. That's what I'll be remembered for. Whether that makes golf look insular in any way, it's just the way it is."
And that way is why we should steer clear of certain sports as much as possible over the coming weeks, because this is not their time. Instead it's an event to focus in on the stories that mean the most to those making them. Recently referencing the much reported state of the water in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay for instance, American rower Megan Kalmoe gave an insight into what the Olympics should be solely about. "I will row through s*** for you," she announced.
Not many of the superstars here would even lie about such passion and desperation. It's why people like her are the real stars of these Games, regardless of reputations.