PARIS — All that stuff about the Olympic ideal, how it's all about taking part, not winning, can often seem like so much hot air, rendered hopelessly quaint and outdated by the ultra-competitive and mercenary world of modern sport. Until, that is, you speak to Kieran Behan.
Ireland's first gymnast to qualify for an Olympic Games is a vaulting, somersaulting advertisement for believing in the bright side of life, for picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and starting all over again.
Should headliners like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt spot his tousled, reddish hair and size XXL grin at breakfast in the Olympic village this July, they'd be well advised to pull up a chair, because Behan has an amazing story.
Had the 22-year-old listened to his doctors, he might still be in a wheelchair, unable to walk, not training 30 hours a week on the acrobatic routines he'll perform at the London Games. Behan has no illusions: He's not a favorite for gold. But his tale of triumph over adversity is tough to beat.
It starts with what should have been a routine operation to remove a benign, golf ball-sized tumor from Behan's left thigh when he was aged 10. The surgical staff, he explains patiently, didn't regularly check the tourniquet on his leg while he was anesthetized, leaving him with "severe nerve damage" that caused "excruciating pain" if someone so much as brushed against the damaged limb.
Not for the last time, Behan confounded doctors who "told me I was never going to walk again, let alone do gymnastics."
"It was a long old road," he says matter-of-factly of the 15 months he took to recover.
Then, back to the gym. As a kid, glued to the 2000 Sydney Games, Behan had told his dad, Philip, and mum, Bernie, that he wanted to become an Olympian.
"To get some energy out of me, stop me climbing the curtains and the door frame," they steered their bouncing ball of a boy toward gymnastics. The variety of moves — "there's hundreds of skills that you can learn" — instantly appealed.
"I loved it as soon as I did it," he says. "It's very thrill-seeking, as well. I mean, I just love to fly around, really, and jump about."
But, at age 12, came what Behan calls his "freak accident." Doing handstands on the high bar, he slipped off and whacked his head.
"Took a hell of a hit," he says. "It knocked everything silly."
The worst damage was to his vestibular canal in the inner ear, "which is the balance organ, so it tells you whether you are going left or right or upside down."
Again, the prognosis was grim. "I even had to see a psychiatrist to sit me down and tell me that, 'It is very unlikely that you'll walk again and you have got to come to terms with that.'"
Again, Behan set about proving the physicians wrong. This time, the road back was longer still. "I had to learn absolutely everything again" — how to sit up in a hospital bed, hand-eye coordination, catching a ball, being able to look at fast-moving objects without blacking out. To help with that, Bernie would wheel her son to a window, so he could watch cars go by.
"You don't really want to be there counting each day," he says. "You just think about the positive side of it all, you just think about, 'Right, well, I'm going to get back, I'm going to get back on my feet, I'm going to get back to the sport that I love.' And that's what drove me on."
When finally well enough to return to school, he took his first steps with a walker, then with a cane. In all, some three years passed before he recovered sufficiently to return to the gym and, even then, "I still would occasionally black out." On the first day back, "I was so excited, I was a like a little kid waiting to open a Christmas present."
Since then, he has also ruptured cruciate ligaments and had reconstructive surgery on both knees. He blew out the left one six weeks before what was to have been his first senior appearance for Ireland, at European competition, in 2010. He was practicing the floor, his strongest apparatus, but rolled his ankle and dislocated the knee on the final tumble of his routine.
"That was the hardest injury out of all of them," he says. "The closest I have ever been to quitting."
He also climbed financial mountains to qualify for London. Competing at the worlds in Tokyo last October — he was 98th out of 262 in the all-around competition — cost him 5,995 pounds (7,177 euros; $9,439). "I had to raise all that myself." He sold cakes and bacon rolls at his gym club, held raffles and washed cars, and lived on a shoestring — sometimes taking the train (he grew up and lives in the suburbs of London) without paying his fare.
"I know that sounds really bad," he says.
Not really, Kieran.
What's important is that he made it. He got word in January, during a test competition at London's O2 arena that will host the Olympic gymnastics events, that he had qualified for the games. "I was with my coach, and we were just literally jumping around the room, crying our eyes out."
Barry McDonald was the first and so far only gymnast to represent Ireland at an Olympics, in Atlanta in 1996. But, as Behan quickly points out, McDonald benefited from a wild-card invite, so "technically, I'm actually the first" to reach the games by qualifying.
What a journey. It makes terms like "win" and "lose" seem shallow and irrelevant.
"I'm just going there to do as well as I can," he says.
In other words, to be an Olympian and everything that means.
"I've got goose pimples just thinking about it," he says. "Maybe sitting there, having breakfast with Usain Bolt or Roger Federer or someone like that. ... Oh. It's absolutely amazing. It's just so surreal. It really hasn't sunk in. All the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up even just talking about it."