With the pressure on, O’Keefe didn’t come within five meters of her personal best and her display could be easily quantified as one more instance of an Irish athlete underperforming on the biggest stage. Except that would be totally wrong.
The career of this Kilkenny woman epitomizes the good and the bad in Irish athletics just now. To understand why the country emerged with its head bowed from Helsinki, one need only examine her sporting biography. She picked up the hammer for the first time at the age of 17, discovered some innate ability and began working feverishly to improve. Within a year of her first throw, she was competing at the European Juniors. Twelve months after that, she was at the European Seniors and progressing nicely through the ranks.
Although a fourth at the World Student Games is her finest achievement to date, the way in which O’Keefe has developed even to that level is remarkable. She has no technical coach, combines training with studying to be a nurse (not the sort of job with easy hours) and trains out of a throwing circle her family built in the back garden of their farm. She’s competing in a sport dominated by Russian and Cuban women with access to every facility and advantage possible and she’s practicing at the back of the house in a homemade circle.
It gets better. On her way to becoming the finest female hammer thrower the nation has ever produced, O’Keefe turned up at Morton Stadium in Santry one afternoon, hoping to make the sort of throw that could legally qualify as a championship standard. There was a slight hiccup when the authorities told her to go and find a vegetable shop that would weigh the hammer and ratify that it was the correct size.
Seventy years ago, the Germans dispatched a team to Ireland to photograph and study our hammer-throwers at work. They wanted to figure out how this country had dominated the event and taken seven of the first eight gold medals at the Olympic Games. Now, an Irish thrower can’t even get the hammer weighed at the national athletics stadium and practices behind her house. Indeed, the biggest cloud on O’Keefe’s horizon is figuring out how she will train when her studies take her to Dublin next year — the capital city being bereft of a place for a serious athlete to throw the hammer.
These are not obstacles placed in front of her rivals and what is laudable is that even in these trying circumstances, she has kept improving. Two weeks before Helsinki, O’Keefe set a new Irish record of over 69 meters. Quite an achievement given that earlier this year she had been distracted for a time by the news that her annual sports grant as an elite athlete was being cut. An appeal successfully staved off that disaster and eventually gave her access to a whopping