Thursday 27 October 2016

Martina Devlin: Let's not force athletes into Games of two halves

Published 16/08/2012 | 17:00

Richard (left) and Peter Chambers (centre), who took silver in the lightweight fours, and Alan Campbell, who won a
bronze in the single sculls, at their homecoming in Coleraine, Co Derry, yesterday
Richard (left) and Peter Chambers (centre), who took silver in the lightweight fours, and Alan Campbell, who won a bronze in the single sculls, at their homecoming in Coleraine, Co Derry, yesterday

THERE seems to be something Irish in the minds of Irish people that causes us to act in an Irish manner. Specifically, to make things hard for ourselves.

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A classic example is the brouhaha whipped up from botched negotiations between the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) and Dublin City Council for the Irish team's homecoming celebrations.

A public event went ahead yesterday, after some unnecessary shilly-shallying during which the OCI did not cover itself in glory. But watching that group of athletes applauded by fans who braved a rainstorm to register their support, I found myself thinking about the three Coleraine rowing medallists feted elsewhere.

It's such a wasted opportunity for sportsmen and women, born on both parts of this small island, to divide into Team GB and Team Ireland colours, instead of talent being courted and pooled as a matter of course.

A number of sports, notably boxing, already operate under all-island terms through their associations. But others don't. And with Rio four years away, now might be an appropriate time to consider merging sporting associations with separate northern and southern arms.

Some northern athletes may still prefer to tog out for Team GB, but others may be willing to join an Irish squad if training facilities are attractive enough. This year, it might have meant eight medals instead of five.

Granted, complications arise due to the vexed question of identity. But the Good Friday Agreement shows no obstacle is insurmountable. Besides, athletes tend to care more about achieving excellence than sectarian divides.

Compromise may smooth out difficulties. Let's start with the name under which the team would compete.

An all-island Olympics troupe couldn't participate as Ireland because that's a simplification too far. Northern Irish athletes with a British identity would be subsumed: their right to self-define as both British and Irish must be respected.

So we remove Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as terms, and call the territory 'Ireland North and South' or 'Ireland South and North' or any acceptable permutation that acknowledges both elements.

Next up, the flag. Again, the Tricolour and Union Jack need to be set aside, and a banner palatable to both sides designed. One possibility is a red hand of Ulster on a green background to represent Ireland.

The reason I propose the red hand, rather than King Billy's white horse or an Orange sash, is because it's a dramatic symbol and both communities in the North already unite behind it.

Ultimately, it derives from Celtic mythology, although there are variations on how the emblem came about. One version tells of two rivals racing for the prize of Ulster, and an early, ambitious member of the O'Neill clan cutting off his hand and tossing it ahead to claim the land. Such single-mindedness is certainly in keeping with the Olympic tradition, although perhaps we can agree limbs need no longer be sacrificed.

Look away at this point if you're fanatical about the green-white-and-orange. That rainbow of national flags at the opening and closing ceremonies -- the Japanese sun and Mexico's Aztec pictogram spring to mind -- were a reminder the Tricolour is, in any case, a dull strip of cloth. It's not even unique: the Cote d'Ivoire's flag is almost identical, except green and orange stripes are reversed.

And so to the inconvenience of two national anthems. Why not jettison both 'Amhran na bhFiann' and 'God Save The Queen' and have an Olympics anthem? One possibility is to run a competition with a public vote.

Alternatively, 'Ireland's Call', the pan-Ireland rugby anthem adopted by all-Ireland cricket, hockey and Grand Prix teams, strikes a suitably rousing note. Sports fans take no less pride in a rugby win because 'Ireland's Call' is played in a stadium abroad, and an IRFU flag flutters in place of a Tricolour. It remains an Irish victory.

In fact, the 'Ireland's Call' lyrics are more appropriate to the present day, with their reliance on geographical name-checks for a sense of common purpose rather than the image of soldiers round a campfire preparing for battle.

Back in 1907, when Brendan Behan's uncle Peadar Kearney composed the song, it appeared to catch the mood. However, its lyrics don't bear scrutiny today, with their references to the Saxon foe, and a pledge that despots will no longer be sheltered in "our ancient sireland" (only its handy rhyme could have left that phrase in the final cut).

We wrap the Olympics in a mystical cloud of patriotism, with participants' amateur status deemed to elevate them to a more rarified level than their professional counterparts. But how could anyone regard Usain Bolt as an amateur, with his multi-million euro endorsements? As for patriotism, the athletes are competing for themselves first and their nations second -- understandable given their sacrifices.

While the boxers caught our imagination, and Cian O'Connor's medal was a delightful plus, Coleraine's Alan Campbell also delivered an inspirational performance. Following his bronze win for Britain in the men's single sculls, he had to be half-carried to the podium because he was utterly spent after pouring everything into the race.

Perhaps there is a Campbell-enthused athlete waiting in the wings, or junior rowers motivated by the Chambers brothers, Richard and Peter, who would compete for Team Ireland rather than Team GB, all things being equal.

After all, Belfast's Wayne McCullough, from the staunchly loyalist Shankill Road, fought under Irish colours, carrying the Tricolour at Seoul and winning silver four years later in Barcelona 1992.

Sportspeople often prefer not to be pigeon-holed because it can cost them followers -- boxer Barry McGuigan made a virtue out of declining to choose sides. The same characteristic is identifiable in Rory McIlroy, who calls himself Northern Irish, and is likely to play for Britain in 2016 -- as is his prerogative -- but has represented Ireland alongside Graeme McDowell. Clearly, sensibly, he focuses on trophies rather than flags.

Not everyone is keen to be defined in absolute terms. Can't we take this on board and make space for a more fluid interpretation of identity within the Irish Olympics family?

Sport is a force for bringing people together, as London 2012 highlighted. So by probing whether its unifying factors can be extended still further, there is much to be gained.

Not just medals, incidentally.

Irish Independent

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