Friday 28 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Roche and Derval defy our cynicism

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

IN CROKE PARK on Saturday, much of what we interpreted as knowledge was left like an old circus poster, flapping in the wind.

Kerry and Tyrone slipped out of championship contention against opponents few of us believed could be ready for their altitude.

It was remarkable. The two counties that set every modern template in Gaelic football just ran out of road on the one evening. And the dying cliche that uncertainty is the only real point of sport came tumbling into the light again.

Because there's a lot out there that amounts to little more than book-keeping with an audience. Be it the bloodstock sales of the Premier League or the secondguessing of team radio conversations in Formula One, much of what gets sold as sport today is as programmed as a Broadway show.

Croke Park on Saturday, though, flew off on a thousand solo-runs, pitching logic on its backside, shredding championship odds into confetti. It was like a whispering breeze bringing down oil derricks in Oklahoma. Shouldn't have been possible really. But it happened.

Just last week, this column got thinking how, now that all four million vertical miles of another Tour de France had been completed, we were already missing Nicolas Roche. His diaries in this newspaper were a revelation.

In the whole history of rotten sport, Le Tour has been top of the list for longer than is decent. Like Track and Field, it is cursed with a disbelieving audience. Nobody trusts a serial adulterer and professional cycling has had more clumsy infidelities than Ashley Cole.

Yet, Nicolas somehow managed to call into vivid colour a time when the race held his country spellbound. He reminded us how it could house a million little dramas. The day his father needed oxygen on La Plagne, it felt as if all of Dublin had ground to a panicked standstill.

Everyone knew their Delgados from their Mottets from their Fignons back then. We spoke the lingo. Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly were giants of the peloton and we hadn't yet really come to realise the extent of cycling's deception. So we'd gape in awe as this train of improbably thin men, their calf muscles bulging like onions in a net, snaked upmountain roads steeper than church steeples.

And we'd watch supporters wobble on the roadside, waving baguettes and cups of wine, as if to remind the racing whippets of an alternative lifesyle. Frankly, it was wonderful. Years later, evidence would emerge that many of the great races were decided, essentially, in secret polytunnels. But, back then, the cynics amounted to a marginal constituency.

I'm not sure exactly when the light went out. Paul Kimmage's book, ‘A Rough Ride', was first published in 1990, yet it's pretty sobering to reflect that almost another decade passed before the ‘Festina Affair' finally exposed the scale of professional cycling's lie.

This was '98, of course, the year Le Tour started in Ireland and, also, the year Lance Armstrong began to race again after fighting a miraculous battle with testicular cancer.

Armstrong's story subsequently ran off the rails of anything we could regard as an understanding of the human condition. Between '99 and '05, he won Le Tour seven consecutive times. More incredibly, he did so whilst cleaner than an Alpine dew. In a piranha-infested lagoon, the humble crab was king.

So cynicism became our natural condition with the peloton. In fact, I suspect we lost all appetite to make a distinction between cyclists trying to race cleanly and those under perpetual superstition. The sport was rotten, hence its entire community.

But Nicolas' diaries tugged us so deep into Le Tour this year, it read like a redemption song. Armstrong came across as a dwindled presence, hawking merchandise and just seeing out time. And the uproar over Alberto Contador's decisive move on the yellow jersey when Andy Schleck's chain came away spoke of a plaintive (almost comical) cry for honour in a sport that, for decades, would struggle to have spelt the word.

Nicolas, too, gave us maybe the greatest opening line ever deposited on a sports page when he wrote, “If John Gadret is found dead in his hotel room in the morning, I will probably be the primary suspect”, after his French team-mate broke team orders.

Suddenly, a caravan that floated past, solemn as a long hearse, had an epic, storytelling quality again. It was a tale of the haves and the have-nots co-existing under stress.

This is how sport should be, because it isn't some grand multiplex. It can't be something that just comes on for our convenience like a fridge light. Real sport makes the skin tingle because, at its best, it flies an ungovernable path.

Anyone who knows her story will understand that the essence of Derval O'Rourke's wonderful achievement in Barcelona at the weekend wasn't a simple mastery of method and stride. It was a triumph of the human spirit over daunting personal circumstance.

Kerry and Tyrone fell foul of that kind of underdog defiance on Saturday. They won't appreciate the enthusiasm that Down and Dublin's victories decanted, but they will surely understand it. Because the weekend highlighted the fallibility of all we think we know. Never a bad thing.

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