Right before winter returned, and the snow fell, the morning is positively balmy in Enniskerry, and Gavin Noble agrees we should sit outside Poppies cafe and talk all things Paris come summer of next year.
Only 500 days to go – from next Tuesday, to be exact.
No global sporting event loves this big, long countdown more than the Olympic Games, and straight away Noble is talking in the here and now, not the there and then. Trust me, he comes eminently qualified.
How did he get here? At age 41 (hey, 10 years younger than me, already) Noble is the Team Ireland chef de mission for Paris, a perfectly natural successor to Tricia Heberle, the former Australian Olympian who was headhunted for the role for Tokyo, doing an excellent job too.
Paris. It’s a long, long way from the old days of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), in every sense. Noble first came on board with the new guard, the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI) as deputy chef de mission for Tokyo, working in that role under Heberle – although in truth the journey began long before.
Noble is an Irish Olympian, competing in London 2012 in the triathlon, arguably the single most difficult sporting discipline in which to qualify, and he finished exceptionally well: 23rd in a field of just 55 global qualifiers (remember the Brownlee brothers winning gold and bronze).
I was never in doubt Tokyo would go ahead. That’s why Paris will be so different, and I’d be more worried around athletes walking into a packed Olympic Stadium than an empty stadium. There are a lot of more psychological things which will be totally different for Paris
When I ask how Noble is doing, and he says it back to me, the first thing we establish is that he is moving house with his wife and two young children. Some say that’s in the top three most stressful things in life, but Noble doesn’t see it that way.
He smiles in the face of any apprehension, laughs at the thought of any stress. It’s in his DNA to be this way. Born and raised in Enniskillen, with mixed Catholic and Protestant parents, first and foremost a sporting family, Noble had plans to be an elite athlete and never looked back.
When he competed in London in 2012, Sonia O’Sullivan was chef de mission for Team Ireland. “She was very much a public figurehead,” he says. “I think the role kind of needed that at the time, and she did a great job. It was inspiring to have someone like her.
“I’m not looking to be that figurehead, specifically. It’s more about the performance directors now, for me it’s more about supporting them. Some sports are developed to a very high professional level now, my job is to keep pushing them, then sometimes get out of the way. Other sports aren’t quite as well developed yet, and do require a more leadership role.
“I was never in doubt Tokyo would go ahead. That’s why Paris will be so different, and I’d be more worried around athletes walking into a packed Olympic Stadium than an empty stadium. There are a lot of more psychological things which will be totally different for Paris.
“Actually, stress is the wrong word. To meet athletes who have just qualified, their dream coming true, you don’t get stressed about it. You knew it was the same for everyone, every country. So if I lose my head, start getting stressed, and you’re supposed to be the leader ...”
Noble is eminently qualified; he was knocking on the door of Olympic qualification in 2008, the first Irishman in that role. “I’d done all the paperwork, two weeks before, inside athlete top 55, then someone jumped up on the rankings, took my spot ...
“But making London, it also allowed me to give something back to my family. My mother would be asked about me, and she’d say, ‘he’s a triathlete, he’s supporting himself.’ So to have family and friends there made it even more special than being in Beijing.
“I did well, as well as I could. I wasn’t going there deluded, thinking I was going to win a medal, I was leading at end of the bike, I knew my running was 31 minutes, still pretty good, I wasn’t 29:39, like the Brownlees, like ... I knew what I had to do, and I did that.
“I know some of the athletes look at me, at this point in time, and wonder ‘how did he get that role?’ And that’s fine, but I’m happy to share my experience with anyone.
“Part if it is ego, right, and part of that now is coaching other athletes, trying to make someone else win. And I’m unhappy if they don’t win.
In my mind, we have 12 medal opportunities in Paris. That’s talking now, 500 days out, and I don’t think that will change very much. And we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about medals, or finals
“Athletics, It’s got more medals on offer than any other Olympic sport. Still we classify it as just one. Sprints, middle distance, jumping, throwing, marathon. No other sport has that variety – even 1,500m coaching is very different from 5,000m coaching. It’s a lot more nuanced.
“We’re tracking all the time, and I could more or less tell you the team of athletes right now. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
“In my mind, we have 12 medal opportunities in Paris. That’s talking now, 500 days out, and I don’t think that will change very much. And we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about medals, or finals.
“But look, it’s not my job to win the medal. My job is to help create the environment where the teams and sports can perform.
“To be fair, there will be people in that team who did very good, I had a really good experience in London, and it was such a small team. They just weren’t open enough, or built new relationships, that’s part of my job, building the relationship with Sport Ireland, the institute. In some areas they did really good things, they just didn’t keep good relationships, and eventually that comes back on you.
“For us, it’s very familiar, they’re less reliant on us than, say, Tokyo. Every sport will have their own plan, and I’m okay with that. So we’re having more individual plans.
“We have a separate plan for rowing. If you look at the centre of Paris, if you’re not 30 minutes from the venue, from the village, we have a separate plan for you.
“So they’re in a small hotel, not far from the venue. It’s them, Switzerland, New Zealand and Germany. That’s the level we have to play at. If the plan is good enough, we’ll find the money. But we can’t go in thinking someone else is better prepared than us.”