Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy can hit the tiles after Olympic heroics

TV View: George Hamilton finally gets to commentate on an Irish gold medal

Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan may hit the tiles again. Seven letters, Olympic. Seven letters, victors. The word ‘champion’ stretches to eight, ‘gold medals,’ an unplayable two words.

Clearing the rack in Scrabble in one fell swoop (all seven tiles) represents a pinnacle of the game, a state of grace which the two Irish rowers are also well versed away from the board after winning the lightweight men’s double sculls Olympic final at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo.

The newly minted gold medal winners might plump for a change of pace to recent nights, although it might be less easy to source celebratory beverages in the midst of a pandemic with a strict curfew than it proved in controlling an Olympic rowing final. Mind you, who’d wager against anything to which the European, World and now Olympic champions set their minds.

The preamble to the race was typically Irish as RTÉ’s Jacqui Hurley and David Gillick tried to remain on an even keel emotionally but that veneer slipped periodically in the case of the latter. There is a long and tortured history in Irish sport where the very notion of being favourites is treated with huge mistrust. As a nation we tend not to be John or Jane Bullish.


Gillick was perfectly entitled and correct to assert pre-race that “I am very confident of what they can do,” and “I think that we have a great crew that can do it,” perhaps less so in a literal sense when he said, “they’ve got gears;” illegal surely but it may partially explain their dominance.

The Olympics is a time that prioritises places rather than records when it comes to the stopwatch so breaking the world mark in the semi-final would be incidental when it came to the final for the Irish boat, other than as a confidence fillip.

After 500 metres, McCarthy and O’Donovan were 1.04 seconds behind the Germans in third. RTÉ’s George Hamilton reminded the viewers that the Irish pair were noted for their time management during races.

Through 1,000 metres they had cut the deficit to 0.62 seconds and claimed second. Hamilton is never afraid to confront fate head-on. By 1,500 metres his observation, “that the swift starting Germans have been caught,” as Ireland led by 0.27 seconds, prompted a swell of excitement where the possible and the probable were swapping places.

As a canvas appeared between the Irish and German boats Hamilton voice quickened too, “250 to go and history being made in Tokyo,” before adding “they’re home and hosed” as the finish line loomed and thereafter offering an eloquent eulogy to the Irish pair who had brought home Ireland’s first ever gold medal in rowing.

In some respects it wouldn’t have looked out of place if O’Donovan had scrambled to the prow of the boat as they returned to land, stood aloft in a conquering hero pose and proclaimed, ‘for Ireland, Gary and Saint George.’

A timely tribute to his brother Gary, a reserve for the winning boat, a sibling with whom Paul claimed a silver medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 while simultaneously marking the first occasion on which RTÉ’s George Hamilton has commentated on Irish gold medal winners in this his 11th Olympics as a broadcaster, spanning 45 years.

Claire McNamara’s interview immediately after the race mined several typically colourful nuggets from O’Donovan. She ventured: “A word for those watching on. The pair of you have brothers that you rowed with. Fintan your twin brother Jake, and your silver with Gary in Rio, Paul; he’s (Gary) here as a reserve. They would have been the ones shouting loudest.”

O’Donovan responded: “Gary might have been stuck in an aeroplane on the way home because he wasn’t being used by this stage. I don’t know if he saw it (the race) or not but sure he wouldn’t be too put out.”

When asked about his mum giving out that she hadn’t seen him in such a long time, Paul deadpanned: “I have been ignoring her all the while, she’ll be fairly annoyed when I get home, I will get a crack of the hand across the face, I’d say.”

If Gary’s whereabouts were unknown then Fintan’s brother Jake’s certainly wasn’t as he popped up mid interview at the McCarthy family home in Skibbereen, a process that started with proud parents Tom and Sue, before Jake and sister Kate appeared in camera shot; the only one who appeared reluctant to be part of the process was the family cat.

The first glimmer of emotion from McCarthy and O’Donovan was manifest in a little jig on the podium after they had presented each other with their respective gold medals, adding a touch of humour that is never far from the surface as they rather formally shook hands while completing the task.

If they do decide to hit those tiles then it’s worth noting that Quartzy, a word which means resembling quartz and Muzjiks, a name for Russian peasants especially prior to 1917, can under certain circumstances be among the highest scoring seven letter words in the game of Scrabble. They’re in the bag. Just like those gold medals.