Paul O'Donovan and his fellow Cork man Fintan McCarthy rowed themselves into Irish sporting history by winning the lightweight double sculls. It is Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing and only the third ever in the sport. O’Donovan and his brother Gary won the silver in the same event five years ago in Rio while the women’s four scooped a bronze in Tokyo yesterday.
For the first time in nine years the tricolour was raised highest at an Olympic medal ceremony after the pair were presented with their Olympic gold medals.
Earlier, O’Donovan and McCarthy clasped hands after crossing the finish line in 6.06.43, half a boat length ahead of the German crew who made life difficult for the Irish throughout a fascinating final. The underdogs laid down their challenge right from the gun, taking an early lead with Ireland and Italy disputing second.
In the opening 500m Germans Jonathan Rommelmann and Jason Osborne were ten lengths clear but the Irish crew’s strategy has always been based around upping the pace between the 500m and 1500m mark. As expected, Ireland began to close the gap and between the 1k and 1500m mark and they reduced the deficit until the boats were level.
It was now a two-crew race for gold with the pairs disputing the lead as the crews approached the grandstand. But O’Donovan and McCarthy had the strength and the speed to move ahead when it mattered most and as they approached the finish line they were a half a length in front.
It was the way the pair would want to have created history – a real race in which they were pushed to their limits but prevailed. Italy claimed the bronze medals.
Newly crowned Olympic champion O’Donovan said the gold medal race on the Sea Forest Waterway panned out much as the Irish crew had anticipated.
“The Germans and the Italians always have the quick start, you can be sure of that, and for once then we had a good start. It hadn’t been for the lack of effort (until now).
“The rest of the time we weren’t going off fast, so it was a bit of a surprise when we did and we weren’t totally dropped in the first 500 metres. Then we just put the heads down and ploughed on.”
“Fintan (McCarthy, his partner in the boat) said a few things to me during the race but you would be on auto pilot half the time,” insisted the double Olympic medallist.
He insisted there was never any sense the race was getting away from them, even though the Germans led until the 1500m mark.
“I don’t think there was any moment of panic. We were kind happy out with our position, like. We often have a big sprint at the end if we need it. So, we knew if we were sitting level or even a bit behind, we could pull something off. We were eking out a bit of a finish before the end so that was good.”
McCarthy, who watched O’Donovan and his brother Gary win a silver medal in Rio five years from the local pub in Skibbereen, was surprised at how nerveless he felt before the biggest six-and-a -half minutes of his sporting career.
“I would usually get a bit nervous, but I felt ready. It was good.”
His immediate post-race celebrations had to be curtailed when he had to go to doping control. “That brings you right back down to earth,” he said.
Asked about how the win felt compared to his Rio silver which he achieved with his brother Gary, O’Donovan said he didn’t think too much about it.
“I mean, to be honest, that was five years ago. I rowed with the brother, I didn’t think too much about how I felt at the time, compared to how I’m feeling now.
“After winning gold medal here today, and a silver medal last time, I probably am a little hit happier because, as a kid, you’re dreaming of winning a gold medal. A silver medal is nice, but Fintan did the right job, straight to the top in his first Games so he must be pretty happy too.”
McCarthy said he was proud to bringing home the gold medal.
“It’s really satisfying to have done it. Great to make everyone at home proud and put Ireland in the history books.”
O’Donovan insisted that the Covid-19 restrictions had not impacted on their preparations.
“I don’t think it’s been tough, at all to be honest. We were planning on rowing this year anyway. So when they didn’t cancel the whole thing it suited us, it fitted in with our plan. We got to spend a lot of time at home in Skibbereen, which we don’t usually get because we are away going to regattas.”
Their rivals were quick to praise the duo's impressive perfrmance.
“They are incredible,” said Jiri Simanek, who led Czech Republic to a fourth-place finish, their boat crossing the line 10 seconds behind the Irish and an agonising tenth of a second away from the medals. “We are in good shape but they are something out of space for us. They deserve it. Paul is a monster.”
His team-mate Miroslav Vrastil struck a similar tone. “Yeah, he is a monster,” he added. “We are in very good shape, but they are just better.”
Pietro Ruta, who helped Italy to bronze, said the Irish duo stand alone in their event. “It is such a strong crew,” he said. “They have a different strategy, they are very constant over the race but the last part, it’s good for them.”
Asked whether he felt they were beatable, he thought for a moment and said: “Yes, if you find a stronger boat you can beat them.”
The Czech crew was less sure about that. “Right now, they are unbeatable,” said Simanek. “The whole season they were first, last year they were first. They are very, very good. We have already (bridged) the gap we wanted, but I don’t know if it’s in our power to reach these.”
For Germany’s Jason Osbourne, this might have been his final chance to get one over on the Irish, given he now plans to switch to cycling, but he was rewarded with a silver medal, their boat hitting the line less than a second behind the Irish.
“I’ll give it a shot but if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll go back to rowing,” he said. “We tried to beat them today and we’re happy with how it went. Today was the closest we have ever got.”
28-year-old O’Donovan becomes the first-ever Irish athlete to win Olympic gold and silver medals and joins Pat O’Callaghan (gold in the hammer throw in 1928 and 1932) and Paddy Barnes (bronze in boxing in 2008 and 2012) as a medal winner at two different Olympics.
It is Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal since Kate Taylor's boxing win in 2012 and the first male Irish gold medallists since Michael Carruth in 1992.
O’Donovan’s partner Fintan McCarthy wins an Olympic gold on his debut.