JOE Backpacking Diary #21 - How one of the most controversial weeks in Irish sport unfolded in Rio 6 years ago

JOE Backpacking Diary #21 - How one of the most controversial weeks in Irish sport unfolded in Rio

Great celebrations, Katie Taylor's shock defeat, a robbery on Michael Conlan, a silver medal for Annalise Murphy, Pat Hickey's arrest and Thomas Barr's heroics. That's a week I'll never forget.

My name is Joe Harrington; I'm travelling through Central and South America for eight months, here's what happened on week 20.


Rio De Janeiro, Brazil (continued)

It seems like a lifetime ago now but there was one hell of a celebration in Rio for Gary and Paul O'Donovan last Friday night.

The Irish turned out in their droves and we took over a spot under the famous arches in Lapa for the night.

Lapa is such a cool place, this is what it looks like during the day.



Lapa arches in Rio

It transforms at night when it's taken over by a mix of thousands of locals and tourists, food vendors, caipirinha stands, musicians and dancers.

It's like a huge, wild, messy, loud, dirty street party.



Lapa in Rio at night

It's a real mix of cultures and there was a great moment last Friday when a few Irish fans and a Brazilian drum band did a crazy, hyped-up version of Olé, Olé, Olé.

The louder the Irish people sang, the louder the band beat the drums, the fun between the two sets of people was amazing.


The unwritten rules for a night out in Lapa are that it's over when the sun rises and the bars and clubs only close when there's nobody left in them. Yeah, so crazy.

A bad day for our boxers on Saturday meant that Michael Conlan and Katie Taylor were our only two remaining hopes.

I travelled to Barra De Tijuca on Sunday morning to see Conlan in his opening bout, I was excited to see the London 2012 bronze medalist in action.

The journey from Flamengo, where I'm staying, is a trek. It involves a two different subways, a bus and a 20 minute walk. Overall, a 90 minute journey.

I bumped into his brother Jamie on the way out and he was very relaxed and confident about Michael's chances, "he just needs to perform," was the message.


Conlan put in a classy performance and beat his Armenian opponent Aram Avagyan comfortably taking all three rounds.

It was the boost the boxing team needed and he looked like he was in the kind of form that would take him a long way.

The focus turned to Katie Taylor on Monday, she faced a Finnish opponent in her opening round.

I got goosebumps seeing her walk out into the ring, it was my first time seeing Katie fight in the flesh and she looked like the superstar she is.

The Bray fighter had a real war with Mira Potkonen and nobody in the stadium knew which way the fight was going but we knew it was close.

Then the decision.

Katie lost?! WTF? Katie lost. We were absolutely stunned in the arena, we couldn't quite believe what just happened.

Myself and the fans just sat there in disbelief for five minutes looking at each other and shaking our heads.

I spoke to some of the fans outside the venue after and they were full of support for Taylor.

While all of the boxing action was unfolding in Barra De Tijuca, Annalise Murphy was getting herself into medal contention in the sailing so I rushed back across the city to watch her medal race.

The race had been delayed all day because the conditions were too calm so even though I was a little late I arrived in time to see her in action. I thought.

The waiting game went on a while longer and eventually when the wind picked up, but the organisers felt is was too strong so it was postponed until the following day.

The sailing was taking place in Marina De Gloria on Flamengo beach, what a setting.

Tuesday was huge; Annalise Murphy sailing for a medal and Michael Conlan fighting for a bronze medal in boxing.

First up was Conlan's fight, he was fighting a Russian Vladimir Nitkin whom I'd seen a few days previously and he didn't look anything special so I expected Michael to do a job on him.

He did do a job on him, he outboxed him and he clearly won the fight, but the judges had other ideas.

"He lost?! Conlan lost. How the hell did he lose? He didn't. What's happening?" was the reaction in the seats around me.

Conlan had been shafted.

As the dust settled in the arena, the sense of anger at the injustice grew among the Irish fans, Conlan's family and his teammates.

I spoke the Patrick Barnes, Paddy Barnes' father, about 30 minutes after the fight and he revealed some sensational information to me.

It's a powerful, articulate and explosive 90 seconds of video.

“We knew coming here this morning, the Russians told us that Michael wasn’t going to get the contest. They told us that themselves. And we knew.”

If you could see my face on the other side of that camera when he said that sentence. I was gobsmacked.

The fallout since has been well documented with Conlan's amazing RTE interview, reports that the judges were sent home and Nitkin's withdrawl because of injury.

It's wrong, it's so wrong and it still stings.

I had to gather myself after all that and rush across the city to see Annalise Murphy's medal race. I was following the story on Twitter and I saw it was confirmed that the race was going ahead.

Here's how I got from Barra De Tijuca to Marina De Gloria; sprint, bus, sprint, bus, sprint, subway, sprint, near heart failure, subway, sprint.

I lost around two stone through sweat but it was worth it, I made it for the closing stages of the race and ANNALISE WON SILVER!

I spent the rest of the evening with her family and friends and it was a similar experience to being with the O'Donovans, her heroics made everyone so happy.

A Dutch girl won gold, but after her national anthem finished, every Irish person on the beach belted out Amhrán na bhFiann for our newest Olympic medalist. It was a special moment.

It was a hectic day, a whirlwind, and unforgettable for so many reasons. I witnessed a contrast in fortunes, the brilliance and cruelness of sport, but also two great ambassadors for our country representing us at the highest level.

My boss back at base in told me to let my hair down and enjoy the night with the Murphys and the fans because the day after was quiet in terms of Irish interest. Paddy McKenna's a sound man (and he's reading this).

The Irish took over Bar Brazooka in Lapa and it was an incredible night. The highlight was seeing Annalise, Gary O'Donovan, Scott Evans and a few of the hockey team standing on the bar as Maniac 2000 blared and the rest of the Irish crowd chanted for them.

There's a real connection between the supporters, media and the athletes over here. I guess because there's such a small group of us and it's so far from home that we're all mixing together.

The unwritten rule of Lapa came back to bite me in the arse on Wednesday morning. I stayed out until sunrise because I thought I had a day off, then Pat Hickey happened.

I got a message at 8am Brazilian time to tell me my day off was cancelled and the guys back in the office needed a video report from Rio.

I took an Uber to the police station where the local authorities were holding a press conference to reveal more details about Hickey's arrest.

The story is unbelievable, every emerging detail is worse than the last, and it seems like what we know now is just the tip of the iceberg. Here'a my video report from Rio.

The #IrishInRio WhatsApp group I set up was buzzing because of the story and these people revealed the problems they had with tickets.

While all of that drama was unfolding, Waterford's Thomas Barr had captured the imagination of the country for the right reasons.

Thomas won his 400 metre hurdles semi final and breezed into the final breaking the national record in the process.

I met Thomas in March before I went travelling and he's one of the soundest and most positive people you'll ever meet. I was very happy for him because his preparations were disrupted by injury, so reaching a final in that fashion was out of this world.

The journey to the Olympic Stadium on the morning of his race was the most enjoyable commute during my time in Rio.

I was going to watch a fellow Irishman run in an Olympic final where he had a chance of getting a medal, why wouldn't I be excited?

I met this crew of brilliant people and we found a great seat on the first bend close to the track.

The Irish presence in the stadium was massive, I counted 13 Irish flags hanging over the edge of the bottom of the stands.

As noon closed in, the nerves began to kick in and we met Thomas' dad who seemed to be handling the occasion better than us.

It was time, here's our view of the race.

A fourth place finish, a sub 48 second run and another new Irish record. What a performance.

I met his parents, Tommy and Martina, just after the race and they were bursting with pride. Watch the interview clip here.

Another night of celebrations took place after that on Thursday as the Irish took over Bar Brazooka once again. It's the unofficial Irish house of the games, they love seeing us coming.

I had an early start on Friday to go and see our race-walkers compete in the 50 km final out in Barra De Tijuca.

The heat was almost unbearable for me as I walked in, I don't know how Rob Heffernan, Brendan Boyce and Alex Wright coped.

Alex unfortunately was forced to pull out because of cramp but Rob went onto finish in 5th with Brendan in 18th.

Another fantastic display by our athletes, they put themselves through the pain barrier to represent us as best they could. We need to be very proud of those men.

The setting for the race-walking in Pontal is unbelievable by the way.

What a bloody week, a rollercoaster from start to finish.

A big shout out to Scott Evans for his unprecedented achievement in the badminton and for going #FullEvans in the arena and in the pub. Hero.


If you want to join the Irish community we've built in Rio, just contact me on Twitter.

If you've any tips on Rio, please get in contact with me on Twitter or Instagram. My username on both is: @ImJoeHarrington.

Read about my trip through Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru by clicking here.

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