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Great Toky-Show Ireland's Olympic team have taken us to a place Covid can’t touch

"If Ireland can deliver a woman so beautiful in her bearing then, you know what, this can't be such a bad place"

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Boxer Aidan Walsh in the ring in Tokyo.

Boxer Aidan Walsh in the ring in Tokyo.

Boxer Aidan Walsh in the ring in Tokyo.

Snapshots from a week in Tokyo that burrow into every crevice and corner that define us as human.

Annalise Murphy, swallowing a thousand aches, a smile of tears kidnapping Rio 2016's silver medallist as her latest Olympic vision dissolves in the churn of Enoshima Harbour.

Conducting the post-mortem on her career as an athlete with the resigned torment and humbling dignity of somebody who recognises all their sporting dreams have already been dreamt.

Michaela Walsh, her own pursuit of boxing immortality KO'd just 72 hours earlier, overwhelmed by emotion as her brother, Aidan, reaches out and seizes bronze.

With disarming Belfast candour, she says this, words more lyrical and beautiful and tear-jerking than Joyce or Yeats or O'Casey could ever conjure: "He's my baby brother and my best friend. It's a joy I've never felt before."

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Michaela Walsh.

Michaela Walsh.

Michaela Walsh.

A joy I've never felt before.

Read that again and tell me it's not the most perfect description of love you have ever encountered.

Ben Fletcher, an English-born son of a Bruff, Co. Limerick, mother, unable to finish his sentences as he struggles to articulate how the Irish flag on his judo uniform makes him dizzy with pride, fills him with a sense of place.

"My mam…Ireland gave me this chance…I'm so, so proud…ah look...this means everything…I wish I'd won…I gave it my very best...I'm sorry."

Four dazzling women - Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty - steering their boat onto the Olympic podium, writing the story of their young lives in ink that is both indelible and stained with years of perspiration and devotion to their dream.

Mona McSharry, her accent part Sligo-Donegal border, part University of Tennessee, her 20-year-old eyes sparkling and alive as she dives in and embraces the swimming days of her life.

Her smile a treasure, more golden than any medal.

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Mona McSharry.

Mona McSharry.

Mona McSharry.

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Shane Lowry, the great, disarming, wish-I-was-having-a-pint-with-him Shane Lowry, a child again as he allows the five ring magic wash over every pore of his being.

Kurt Walker, buzzing, uncontainable, fast-talking, elated, a boxer high on the narcotic of understanding his entire life has been pointing him to this moment.

Kellie Harrington, a beacon for inner-city Dublin and Portland Row, bobbing and weaving within that roped rectangle like Ali himself, then giving the sort of heartfelt interview that makes you well with pride.

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Kellie Harrington

Kellie Harrington

Kellie Harrington

If Ireland can deliver a woman so beautiful in her bearing then, you know what, this can't be such a bad place.

Those master mariners, Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, twinning Skibbereen with Atlantis, gambolling across the Olympic stage as if it was one of the west Cork fields of their childhood.

Brilliance clad in the no-fuss robes of men who pursue excellence rather than acclaim, high-achieving creatures of rare and magnificent substance delivering a muscled rebuke to the empty concept of vacuous celebrity culture.

Giants of accomplishment without even a molecule of ego.

What unexpected joys this Tokyo fiesta has unveiled.

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Gold medalists Fintan McCarthy and Paul O'Donovan.

Gold medalists Fintan McCarthy and Paul O'Donovan.

Gold medalists Fintan McCarthy and Paul O'Donovan.

Baron Pierre De Coubertin's ideal of a four-yearly gathering of humanity in athletic union has been so stained by scandal and greed and base behaviour that we thought it beyond redemption.

Then, initially unloved even by its own host city, a stray cat staggering out of the Covid murk, came this 28th Olympiad.

When least expected and most urgently required, it has deposited an unlikely payload of inspirational charm at our door.

I worked at three Olympic Games: Atlanta, Sydney and Athens.

The Australian adventure, 21 years ago now but as vivid as yesterday, was a highlight of my life.

That gorgeous waterfront, the sun shimmering on the steel arches of the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House sails billowing with happiness, Sonia galloping toward the podium with childlike giddiness…lord, it was perfection.

But the Olympics as a concept has become stained and devalued…a gluttonous, money-grabbing, impossible-to-believe-in festival of schmaltz and insincerity.

And then, as dazzling as a cinder whirling from a blaze, along came Tokyo. I've a soft centre. I cherish those moments that reach down and touch you at the core. This last week they have come at us in a torrent.

At home, on Friday morning, the two of us were watching as Aidan Walsh - this exuberant, inspiring Ulsterman - awaited the result of the fight that would announce him as either Ireland's latest medallist or another forlorn story.

He blessed himself repeatedly as he stood in the centre of the ring, hyperactive with tension, awaiting the supreme court verdict.

When he was declared the winner, he made a credible attempt at the world high jump record, pogoing with uncontainable ecstasy on that canvass stage.

I crumbled, overwhelmed by the power of the moment. Slightly embarrassed, I tried to muffle my tears. Until I realised the lady by my side, equally hypnotised by a scene without flaw, was doing the very same. Sobbing, we hugged.

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Aidan Walsh's mother Martina.

Aidan Walsh's mother Martina.

Aidan Walsh's mother Martina.

Two middle-aged folk, 6,000 miles from Japan, rendered emotionally incontinent by the deeds of a man whose name, 24 hours before, neither of us had ever heard.

To the charge of soppy, saccharine, bandwagon-jumping, I plead guilty as charged, m'lud.

But, you know what, it truly was the loveliest, most purifying few moments of these past 18 months.

Aidan Walsh and his sister, Michaela, chasing their dream, carried us to a place that Covid couldn't touch. They oozed hope and virtue and love.

And, by so doing, vaccinated us against the cynicism and weariness that, given the chance, would seize the title deeds to our souls.

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