Sunday, August 3, 2008

Beijing: Irish Hopes Hit by Injury

Eileen O'Keeffe - injured. Derval O'Rourke - injured. Joanne Cuddihy - injured. While none of these three (with respect) have the cachet of a Sonia O'Sullivan, Irish sports fans were harbouring secret hopes that at least one, if not all three, could make an Olympic final in Beijing.
That's all we are asking for these days - for the moment, the heady days when Irish athletics could hope for a medal have departed. Fortunately, there is still hope.
Athenry's Paul Hession ran 20.37 for 200m at Crystal Palace - not far off his Irish record of 20.30. His time put him equal 27th in the world rankings, along with one Jeremy Wariner of the USA, the Olympic 400m champion, and arguably the fastest white man on the planet.
Of the other 26, Wariner and a further 14 are American. With only three per nation allowed for any event, that takes 12 out of the equation, leaving Hession ranked 15th for Beijing. If he does make the final, it will be a superb achievement.
One who should qualify for a final is Sli Cualann's Roisin McGettigan (pictured above with Deirdre Byrne and Fionnuala Britton), who is ranked 17th in the world - the highest of any female Irish athlete. Women's steeplechase makes its first appearance at the Olympics this year and, so far, McGettigan hasn't put a foot wrong.
Most recently she had the perfect send-off for Beijing when she won the steeplechase at Crystal Palace with a time of 9:33.76, beating Romania's Ancuta Bobocel, who is ranked just one place above her.
McGettigan's fastest time of the season had come in Athens a fortnight earlier, where she clocked a time of 9:30.56. Winner Eunice Jepkorir of Kenya, was only four seconds faster - and she's ranked second in the world behind world record holder Gulnara Samitova-Galkina, who ran 9:08.21 at the Russian Championships.
Last year, Robert Heffernan from Togher made the world's top ten after finishing fifth at the European Championships and sixth at the World Championships.
Coached by Polish race walking legend Robert Korzeniowski, he has maintained that form this year becoming the first Irish walker to break the 1 hr 20 min barrier when he clocked a time of 1:19.22 to finish sixth at the World Race walking Cup in Cheboksary, Russia, in May.
It will be a third Olympics for the Togher athlete, who finished 28th in Sydney and was disqualified (as was Olive Loughnane) in Athens.
Away from athletics, clay target shooter Derek Burnett from Kenagh, Co Longford is the man most people regard as Ireland's best chance for a medal. Burnett, who shoots Olympic trap, was equal 18th at his first Olympic outing in 2000 and improved to equal seventh four years later, just failing to make the final six with a score of 119 out of a possible 125.
Renowned for his metal toughness, Burnett won silver and bronze medals at World Cup events last year and has beaten everybody in the shooting world at some stage.
With five boxers qualified, chances of an Irish medal are proportionately higher than in any other sport. Depending on the draw, any one of Ken Egan, John Joe Joyce, Paddy Barnes, Darren Sutherland or John Joe Nevin could snatch a medal.
In with an outside chance is the men's lightweight four of Paul Griffin, Richard Archibald, Gearoid Towey and Cathal Moynihan. After making it through only in the final Olympic qualifying regatta, the pressure is off the rowers - and that could work to their advantage. After a difficult few years, they do not lack for determination. Hopefully, their efforts to qualify won't have exhausted them.
Another outside chance is slalom canoeist Eoin Rheinisch. He likes the tough technical course in China and if the water flows his way, he could make the top ten at least.
Still, just as in Athens four years ago, Ireland's best chance of a medal comes in show-jumping. Originally from Tipperary, Denis Lynch has lived and worked in Germany since 1994. Thanks to the support of Thomas Straumann, a wealthy Swiss industrialist, his string of horses includes Latinus, currently the top ranked showjumper in the world after Grand Prix wins in Doha, Rome and La Baule. Providing Latinus is a good traveller, an Olympic medal is his to lose.

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