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The highs and lows of Jacqui’s Tokyo Olympics

September 8th, 2021 5:45 PM

By Emma Connolly

Jacqui with Kellie Harrington’s gold medal.

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The effervescent sports anchor says she was ‘getting the evil eye’ from the world’s media over her cosy relationship with two fellow West Corkonians when they won gold for rowing!

BROADCASTER and West Cork woman Jacqui Hurley was getting the evil eye from members of the world media when she interviewed Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy after they won gold in Tokyo.

Jacqui, who anchored RTÉ’s coverage of the games, said the normal drill was that every media outlet would get about 90 seconds to two minutes to ask athletes a few quick questions after their events, before they were ushered on.

‘But when the lads finished their questions with me after winning gold they stayed on for the chats. We’re all from West Cork, there weren’t many other Irish there, so it just felt natural. At the same time, though, I could feel all the other media giving me the evil eye to stop hogging them and to pass them on!’ she laughed. The Ballinhassig woman said Paul and Fintan’s popularity in Tokyo was absolutely incredible.

‘Without a doubt they were the biggest stars there. Everybody knew who they were,’ she said.

The ‘frenzy’ that followed them, she said, was not at all the norm and more like something you’d associate with someone like Usain Bolt. ‘I think it was a mix of their ability and the way that they carried themselves, but they blew people away,’ she said.

‘We saw it at the 2016 games with Paul and Gary – but it was like that, times 20.’

This was Jacqui’s third time covering the Olympics Games for RTÉ. She was also in Rio and London, but it was her first time anchoring the three-week long coverage. The role saw her reporting from a rooftop in blistering heat of 36 degrees for at least eight hours a day, and she loved every minute of it.

‘It was challenging and mentally draining, but anchoring an Olympics was a big dream of mine so it was amazing, having a front row seat and being that person to tell the nation what was happening,’ she said.

RTÉ sent their smallest team ever to Tokyo – four years ago they sent a team of 60, when Ireland had 80 competing athletes. This time it was 30 people, to cover 116 athletes.

As all venues were around an hour apart, there were logistical challenges and naturally Jacqui admits to some apprehension in the build-up and not knowing the restrictions on the ground.

They turned out to be strict and meant that when Jacqui and her colleagues weren’t working, they were only allowed leave their hotel for 15 minutes a day to grab food, water, or anything else they needed.

‘We also had to use the service entrance of the hotel and were kept very separate because a lot of the Japanese public didn’t even want the Olympics going ahead. That was for the first 14 days and after that we could behave as everyone else, but to be fair that part of things was hard, even if it did add to the collegial spirit of things. With people hanging around, as opposed to going back to their rooms, there were always plenty of offers of help,’ she said.

Her favourite moment of the games was seeing Kellie Harrington on the podium with her gold medal.

‘That was such a special day, a moment in time that the whole country stopped to watch. She’s so well liked and I was personally delighted for her.’ Seeing Skibbereen’s Emily Hegarty and the women’s four take bronze was another magic moment.

‘They went under the radar for a lot of people in the heats. Paul and Fintan’s medal was expected, but this wasn’t and it was Ireland’s first medal. They were just amazing. They were so lovely and so excited and took it all so well. It was so new to them, but it was lovely to see their lives change before their eyes.’

She was also strong in her praise of the ‘Ballineen Bullet’ Phil Healy.

‘She didn’t do individually what she wanted to do, but she made sacrifices to get Ireland into an Olympics final and bring three others with her instead.

‘She’s a really special person, so selfless, and I don’t know if she got full credit for that.’

A low was watching Natalia Coyle’s devastating performance in the modern pentathlon.

‘It was nothing to do with her, she was given a horse who wasn’t up to it, but I cried watching that,’ she admitted.

Seeing Rhys McClenaghan losing his balance and falling off the pommel, ending his medal chance, was also ‘heart breaking.’

She admits that one of her biggest professional challenges is not to get too emotionally invested. ‘But that can be hard, I mean you’re a human being too,’ she said.

As a mum of two (Lily, four and Luke, seven) Jacqui had lots of juggling and organising to do before heading off for the three weeks, but not going was ‘a total no-brainer’.

‘To be fair, no one would ask that one of the lads that question heading off on a rugby tour for five or six weeks!’ she said. ‘The Olympics is one of my favourite parts of the job, so there was never a doubt that I wouldn’t go,’ she said.

‘Luke was two when I was in Rio but it’s totally different when you’re leaving kids who are older and can talk and all the rest, but we had it meticulously planned,’ she said.

She had the full support of husband Shane who holidayed in Ballybunion with family for two of the three weeks she was away, and they spent the third back in their Dublin home.

Since returning home she’s enjoyed a trip home to see her parents in Ballinhassig, at the same time her sister visited from the UK. ‘It was her first time home since 2019 and her daughter is the same age as Lily, so that was lovely and it was great for mam and dad to have us there.’

But for now she’s as busy as ever with All Ireland season well underway, and it’s just the way she likes it.

Ballineen Bullet features in new book

JACQUI has also just launched her latest book, Girls Play Too 2: More Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen.

It’s the second edition of a collection of stories about Ireland’s most accomplished sportswomen and aims to inspire the next generation of Irish sportswomen.

Spanning multiple international and domestic sports, the book includes the stories of Dublin Ladies’ Gaelic Football stalwart, Sinéad Goldrick and Olympic sprinter Phil Healy, along with a whole host of Irish sports stars including Olympians and Paralympians, All Ireland champions, rugby and soccer internationals and Cheltenham heroes, among others.

Jacqui said: ‘I hope this book can inspire future generations of female athletes and help to continue the shift towards female athletes getting the respect and recognition they deserve.

‘Between Kellie Harrington at the Olympics, Rachael Blackmore at Cheltenham, and many more standout performances from Irish female athletes this year, the future is certainly looking bright.’

Helping to launch the book was Phil Healy. ‘To be featured alongside so many inspirational Irish female athletes is major source of pride for me and it caps off what has been an amazing last month after competing at my first Olympics,’ said Phil.

‘I hope it will inspire the next generation of female athletes across Ireland.’

The book is exclusively available in all Lidl stores nationwide for €12.99 until September 5th, and in all good book shops thereafter. 

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