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2004-08-31 Olympics

Cian - we worship you, we magnify your greatness for saving our nation from the embarrassment of yet another no-medal Olympics.

As Cian OConnor soars to the status of national hero, and the government are planning to make August 27th a national holiday, we look back and reflect on Irelands otherwise dismal performance in Athens.

Why are we not more successful? Ronnie, Eamonn, John, Sonia and Gillian all made it into our national track-athletes Hall of Fame ; SeŠn and Stephen have done us proud on their bikes, and Michelle&well,Michelle&swam her little plastisoks off. (Where is she now?)

I am fully aware that there is a dramatic lack of funding for our athletes and that is constantly highlighted as a major issue. For swimmers, we have hardly any 50m (Olympic-sized) pools, and have only a handful of stadiums for our budding track athletes. Of course the main factor is a more obvious one, and is quite simply that we are a tiny nation of less than 4 million people, and thus have less to choose from, compared to, for example, the mighty U.S.of A, or Chinas billion. Nonetheless there are smaller countries, and indeed some under-privileged nations who fare remarkably better on the medal podiums than we do. Morocco, Jamaica and the Bahamas feature on the Medals Table, and Australia, though vast in area, has a relatively small population, but somehow manages to scoop a load of awards. Indias billion, however, never seem to make much impression at the Games.

Of course, its not about winning, is it? Its all about the taking part. Yeah, right! Maybe we ought to, as a nation, specialise, like many other countries seem to? It often seems that the weight-lifting is dominated by Hungarians, Turks and Greeks - an obvious exception being the Iranian Gold-medalist who has had houses bought for him in his homeland, and even had a bank named after him. The Ethiopians and Kenyans have long-distance running in their blood and practice by running over hillsides, often at high altitudes, but they too have very few track facilities in their countries and seem to do well in these events also.

We have hills in Ireland, so why do we not have more top-class long-distance runners? We are of course proud of Sonia, and it was lovely to see her do her lap of honour, even if everyone else had finished.

The former Eastern Block countries, such as Russia and Romania, have always excelled in gymnastics, though the USA and China have now become equally impressive in that discipline. And maybe that is exactly what it is all about  discipline. Sports discipline in some of these countries is foremost - often to a fault. I recently witnessed a news item, recounting the story of young Chinese gymnasts who are often hand-picked and trained from as young as 4. Of course we only ever hear of the successes  the medalists  what about all those who fall by the wayside on the rocky road to Olympic stardom?

My belief is that the best sort of discipline is voluntary self-discipline, but maybe we Irish need to encourage sport once again in schools, and ease off a little on the constant emphasis on academic achievement at all costs. In Ireland, we need a long-term strategy for sporting success. Having defended our wee island for centuries, surely we ought to be better at archery, boxing (much and all as I hate it) and shooting  is it not all down to eyesight, aim, discipline and practice? We have plenty lakes and rivers, are surrounded by the sea, and wind is not usually a problem, so our rowers and sailors ought to fare better. And if we can stop exporting our best horses, maybe we can have more Cian OConnors and Waterford Crystals.

Of course it is all futile if sport is going to be dominated by drugs scandals, tales of banned-steroids and dodgy wee-wee. World records are getting harder to smash all the time, and athletes are becoming more desperate, using alternative methods. 100m can be sprinted in less than 10 seconds, but it will never be run in 7 seconds, so where will it all end? When will record-breaking cease?

Maybe a little more emphasis on amateur (literally to love to do) rather than professional might be a good starting-point.

More information on Cian O'Connor: