BY KIERAN McCARTHY
‘It’s always good to be recognised locally. For me, these are the ones that mean the most.’
PAUL O’Donovan is a big fan of the Celtic Ross Hotel West Cork Sports Star Awards – and the feeling is mutual. He knows these awards better than anyone else, too, because he has collected more than any other West Cork sportsperson since these awards started in 1998.
The Lisheen man who makes rowing look easy – important note: it’s not easy, not at all – has won SEVEN monthly awards since his first in 2013. (He could now row down the River Ilen in an eight, just him and his West Cork Sports Star awards). That’s a nod to his brilliance on the water, as the man who learned how to race on the Ilen has developed into Ireland’s greatest-ever rower.
Paul was at the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery again last Sunday evening to pick up his latest monthly award. This was to celebrate his role in the Irish lightweight men’s double that won a glorious gold medal (Ireland’s first-ever Olympic gold rowing medal) at the Tokyo Games in the summer. The other legend in that boat, Fintan McCarthy, received a similar monthly award in September. Logistics and busy diaries prevented the West Cork Sports Star Awards – run by the Celtic Ross Hotel, The Southern Star and C103 – from holding a joint presentation for Paul and Fintan. So, both got their own event.
Paul accepted his latest West Cork Sports Star Award just two days after he found himself in the eye of the storm last Friday when the shortlist for the RTÉ Sport Sportsperson of the Year was revealed. Incredibly, the Skibbereen rower didn’t make the cut and wasn’t included on the eight-strong list.
The mind boggles.
Paul doesn’t seek out the spotlight or court attention. That’s not his style nor does it interest him in the slightest. He is more comfortable in the back of the room, but his sporting brilliance means he stands out from the crowd more than any other athlete West Cork has ever produced.
There was disbelief and shock that Ireland’s greatest and most successful ever rower, who reached new heights in 2021 and added to his legend, wasn’t deemed worthy of inclusion in a shortlist that, in theory, should represent the best of Irish sport.
But this shortlist doesn’t. If it did, O’Donovan’s name would have been included.
It did, for the record, include Rachael Blackmore, Kellie Harrington, Ellen Keane, Cian Lynch, Leona Maguire, Jason Smyth, Katie Taylor and Vikki Wall; all eight enjoyed memorable years in their sports, but O’Donovan’s achievements on a world stage should have him as a front-runner. Instead, not even a shortlisting. Awards are subjective and ideal for the high stool debates, but this was a glaring omission.
Paul won’t lose any sleep over it because he knows the support he receives at home in West Cork is more important than any national recognition. Last Sunday at the Celtic Ross Hotel, his family gathered to celebrate with him; that’s what makes these awards so special. The award winners are amongst family and friends who have walked their journey with them. And the team behind the awards – Helen Wycherley and Neil Grant of the Celtic Ross Hotel, Paudie Palmer and JP McNamara of C103 and myself, on behalf of The Southern Star – share a passion and desire to ensure we continue to champion our local sportspeople. Put the pieces of this jigsaw together and you get sports awards like no other.
‘It’s always good to be recognised locally. For me, these are the ones that mean the most,’ Paul told C103.
‘We’ve said in the past that a lot of the time when you are a bit further afield and further away from home, people would be a lot more interested in the medal, but the closer you get to home the less people care about the medal but the more they care about the physical people themselves, and that is very nice.’
Still though, while Paul will shrug his shoulders and move forward, allow me to point out why his omission from the RTÉ Sport Sportsperson of the Year shortlist makes no sense on any rational level.
This Lisheen man is a phenom; a freak of nature who is regarded, pound for pound, as one of the best rowers in the world. Many argue he is the best. In World Rowing's top ten list of the best rowers for 2021, Paul is at number five, followed by his Irish lightweight double partner Fintan McCarthy at number six. The four Dutch rowers who won gold in the quad at the Olympics take the first four spots.
Together, Paul and Fintan, the Skibbereen double act, dominated the world of the lightweight men’s double in 2021. They won every race in every international regatta they competed in. World Cup II gold, European gold and, the big one, Olympic gold – the first Irish rowers ever to win gold at the Games. This duo are also in the running for Men’s Crew of the Year at the 2021 World Rowing Awards.
Fintan is undeniably world-class. He’s already an Olympic, World and European champion, but even he acknowledges just how extraordinary the other man in the boat is, mentally and physically.
‘Paul is at such a level that when you are trying to match that every day it just pushes you further,’ Fintan explains. ‘I am trying to be as good as him in the boat, and he is the best in the world. Jesus, he has pushed me to new levels, training wise.’
The powerful Paul and Fintan set a world best time (6:05.33) when winning their A/B semi-final at the Olympics; an awesome show of strength. They also capped the perfect season when, two weeks after Tokyo, they won gold in the Henley Regatta. The dream team had the dream year. For Paul, he was elevated to another level: he now holds two Olympic medals (silver and gold) from two Games. He is one of only three Irish people to win medals at two different Olympics.
‘Paul is a phenomenon, one in a million,’ former world rowing champion Niall O’Toole gushed during the Games. ‘Pound for pound the best rower in the world – by far – in my opinion. He's just so far ahead of everyone else, it's just hard to fathom. It really is, it truly is.’
Yet, for all he achieved this past year, that was still not enough to warrant Paul’s inclusion in the RTÉ Sport Sportsperson of the Year shortlist? Really? It’s still December, not April 1st.
When the nominees for the RTÉ Sport Awards 2021 Team of the Year were announced on Sunday, Paul and Fintan were included. That was a no-brainer, given what we’ve already outlined. They should win this award. They’ve earned it. But even if they do, it still doesn’t justify leaving Paul off the shortlist for the Sportsperson of the Year gong. Excellence deserves to be recognised, and celebrated, like the Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star Awards do year after year. And we will continue to do so.