What's it like going to the Olympic Games as fan?

Newstalk Sport's Daniel Kelly looks back on going to London four years ago for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

What's it like going to the Olympic Games as fan?

Picture by: John Giles / PA Archive/Press Association Images

I love sport, and have no problem admitting that.

The Olympic Games is the pinnacle for many sports, and four years ago it was on Irish doorsteps. You could easily leave your house from any part of the country on any given morning and be in London's Olympic Park that evening. I had to go.

Ireland has been lucky and privileged to stage major sporting events in recent years. From the euphoria of the Special Olympics World Games in 2003, to more recent sporting events such as the Ryder Cup and the Europa League final we were always as a nation in a position to see World class international athletes be welcomed to our shores.

When London was announced as the host of the 30th Summer Olympiad in July 2005, excitement was there to be seen throughout our country. Whilst the Olympics were not to be on our shores, it was to be within our reach. Irish people counted the London Games as our own "home games". Every venue would be full of Union Jacks but the Irish tricolour would be their too hanging proudly around London. The green, white and gold would be everywhere to be seen.

In the weeks before the Olympic Games, the iconic flame made it's way to Dublin as thousands took to the streets with Olympic fever. Medalists such as Ronnie Delany and Sonia O'Sullivan along with sporting stars such as Paul McGrath and Ruby Walsh, carried the flame around the city.

1956 Olympic Gold medal winner Ronnie Delany arriving at Goverment Buildings with the Olympic torch.
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Once London won the right to host the Games, I knew I would be there in some form. The dream was to go in attendance at the 100-metres final, but it obviously wouldn't be that easy. Even it it was only to be for a day, the chance to go was not one I could let go. It might the only time, I would be in a position to go to an Olympic Games as a fan and I didn’t want to let the opportunity pass.

The ticketing process could be best described as messy, as initial applications saw our ticket allocation increase bit by bit. We were lucky enough over the course of almost a year to get our hands on tickets for seven different sports. Without knowing it at the time in London, we were to see three London 2012 Olympic champions, the American men’s basketball team, the German men’s hockey team and the French men’s handball team. All three were deserving champions.

The highlight of the trip though was heading to the Excel Arena to see Kilkenny boxer Darren O’Neill in action. He was the only Irish athlete we would have the honour in supporting at the Games and although he lost to his German opponent, the atmosphere and support he got from the Irish crowd is something I will never forget. I can only imagine how it was a few days later when Katie Taylor won her gold medal.

We were lucky to bump into other members of the Irish team supporting O'Neill after his fight. The access to Olympic athletes at the Games was incredible, as fans could easily mingle with the stars. We met the future silver medalist John Joe Nevin after O’Neill’s fight and get a photo with the Mullingar native. It’s something I can always look back on in years to come and it’s a nice memory from a brilliant week.

I have been to London countless times and would count it as the most Cosmopolitan city I have ever visited, but with athletes, team representatives and fans from all over the world in the city it never felt more British. Fans of all generations could be seen everywhere in their "Team GB" clothes and as a country they were fully behind their athletes.

The motto of the games was "Inspire a Generation" and at the time I fully believed that will happen, but it has since been proven that sports participation numbers have decreased. Throughout the Olympic Park and other venues we visited we saw families together watching history unfold before their eyes. These children mede memories they will never forget.

When in the Olympic Park, you could properly feel like you were in the centre of the world. Dignitaries mingled with fans, while you could not walk a few paces without seeing another tracksuit from one of the competing nations.

While the Olympic Games is the peak for many athletes careers, it can certainly seem like an afterthought for fans. Whether it was watching volleyball in Earl's Court, or the water polo in the specially built arena only yards from the Olympic Stadium, fans watched without fully understanding what was at stake for those athletes. A random game between Greece and Spain in the pool may mean the world to the competitors, but to fans it was another part of a packed itinerary.

After an amazing and unforgettable five days in London my brother and I returned home. This was before Ireland won a medal but that was quickly to change. The first event I saw on television after returning from Knock Airport was Katie Taylor’s opening fight in her quest for Olympic gold. The atmosphere I witnessed in the Excel Arena was the best I was part of during the Games but it paled into insignificance, to what Taylor and her British opponent Natasha Jonas had to contend with.

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

On that August Bank Holiday Monday afternoon, the nation stood transfixed to watch the Bray woman fight. We all knew who she was but many had never seen her fight. In those eight dominant and physical minutes the country had themselves a new sporting idol. When she went on to win the gold medal on that historical Thursday evening I was jealous of being in the Excel Arena a week too early but proud that one woman could lift the spirits of a nation, a lift that was badly needed.

As a country we made history in those Games. It was the first time that Ireland had both male and female medalists in the same Olympics. The names of Taylor, Nevin, Barnes, Conlan and O’Connor should be treasured and remembered forever.

It was Ireland's best performance in an Olympiad since the Melbourne Games of 1956 and hopefully those performances can inspire our athletes in Brazil and then onto Tokyo in 2020.

Three of the four 2024 Olympic bids have come from Paris, Rome and Budapest. All relatively accessible from Ireland, although Los Angeles remains the favourite ahead of next year's decision.

The Olympic Games came to our doorstep, we were made welcome in London and I am delighted to say I was there. I just hope the Games don’t take another 68 years to return to the British capital.