‘must go down in history’

When Paul O’Donovan and Vintan McCarthy settle in their boat in the Czech Republic for the World Rowing Championships, they will do so with their eyes fixed on the gold.

The Irish duo are aiming to successfully defend their world title, just as they did at the European Championships in Munich last month.

They travel in waiting rather than hope, and over the past seven years, O’Donovan’s success, first with Brother Gary and later with McCarthy, has been such that it can often be taken for granted.

His Olympic gold and silver medals alone would be enough to create a lasting legacy, but O’Donovan casually added four world golds, three Europeans, and a World Cup gold in regatta.

He is a success on an almost unprecedented level not only in Irish rowing but in Irish sport on the international stage and puts him in the same category as Katie Taylor. Really rare company.

All this was achieved for the Skibereen man while studying medicine at UCC and maintaining a relatively low profile for such a prolific athlete.

Outside of competition, O’Donovan is happy to let his water ability speak for itself, and while post-race interviews usually contain the same amount of gold he wears around his neck, he also appears to have the ability to be restrained. The attention and hype that usually comes with the kind of glory he has already achieved.

The away from Ireland and the added focus of having so much success in a country that boasts only ten Olympic gold medalists throughout history, it is perhaps easier to get a glimpse of O’Donovan’s standing and stature in his sporting field.

The Irish are among the truly elite-level rowers who have picked up a oar, but as rowing journalist and Row 360 writer Rachel Quarrell explains, the fact that O’Donovan competes primarily in lightweight double oars is both a blessing and a curse.

“No one is ever surprised when a boat wins with them, be it singles or doubles,” she told RTÉ Sport. “There are not many people with such good records.

“It’s a bit skewed by the fact that light weights are a very small category now, with only light weight women and a pair of light weight men.

“In a way that it focuses more attention on him, but at the same time it does not get the fame that bachelors have.

“I think the global blasphemy probably doesn’t quite live up to the way they do some of the less important people at individual events because singles make it newsworthy when it comes to one person and their character.

“I’m afraid to say there’s a bit of a bias towards open weights because they’re more imposing physical, they’re bigger and they look stronger, so you’ll always get a slight bias.”

The O’Donovan class has been chosen at the Olympics as the Paris 2024 Games are set to be the pelican for the lightweight rowing events, which are set to be replaced by the 2028 Los Angeles coastal rowing.

Indeed, had it not been for Covid-19, Tokyo 2020 would have been the last light weight class race, and while O’Donovan will have another chance at Olympic glory, there is a sense that the classification is about to end now and may not. Get the respect you deserve.

“We know his class will be leaving after the Paris Olympics, and it won’t be an Olympic event anymore,” Corel explained. “We expect it to be replaced with beach races, which he might actually start with because I think he’d be pretty good at it.

“But there is sadness, because light weights feel like a rump in a class now and because it’s double rather than single, I think that’s perhaps the weakest of the praise it really deserves.

“It’s up there with some of the biggest names I can think of. But there’s a slight undertone from some people, particularly the ‘blazerati’ who don’t tend to be heavyweights themselves – they tend to be heavyweights – there definitely is. A little bit of a bend in there which is a shame.

“History should go down, it’s so good I think most people with any amount of common sense would agree with that.”

Quarrell’s opinion about O’Donovan’s place in the history books is one shared by 1984 Olympic gold medalist Martin Kroos.

Croese recently said, speaking at The South Star Sport Podcast.

Kroos believes O’Donovan is on a par with Valante and Martin Sinkovic, the Croatian brothers who have dominated rowing across three different rankings since 2010.

“I would say there are quite a few athletes who would probably compete for his title. If I think of the male athletes, there are two Croatians, the Senkovic brothers,” Kroos added.

“They won the gold in the double rowing races in Rio, so they each got two blades, and they said ‘Okay, we’ll go back to a double with one blade each’ and they won the doubles title in Tokyo.

“That was a great achievement, and these guys are at the top. Next to them is Paul and in some ways they are very similar, they are very good in terms of PR, they have a really good exterior and they project a great image of the sport.

“I would like to put Paul out there with the Croats as one of the best athletes in world rowing.

“Whether Paul is going to be on top, I think we’ll have to see. I think Paul probably needs to make sure he wins the world championships this year, the world championships next year, and then the Olympic gold.

“Then he would be right at the top of the pyramid, I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”

And what about O’Donovan’s latest challenge and another major step toward a potential career-defining career in Paris 2024?

His fifth consecutive World Championship gold is in his sights, with the event returning after a two-year Covid-19 hiatus and expectations justifiably high.

Quarrell thinks the gold medal in the Czech Republic is once again there to take O’Donovan and McCarthy.

“I don’t see any reason why she couldn’t bring the gold back,” she said.

“I was going to support him. It’s been a long time since he first sat down and I thought he could be anyone

“Other people initially sit very similarly to the way they are used to. [Steve] Redgrave and they think “Oh my God, he can match and maybe even surpass anything I can do”.

“It’s very difficult to race against someone who has that kind of reputation in your class who does just that.”

That reputation will surely precede the Irish duo when they take to the water at Recice today and as always, expectations are high as O’Donovan strives for his fifth consecutive world gold medal.

Watch the World Rowing Championships on RTÉ Player next Friday, Saturday (also on RTÉ One), and Sunday.