Friday 22 September 2017

Boxing: Right fight but wrong fighter

Eamonn Sweeney

Last week at the National Stadium almost 200 girls between the ages of 11 and 16 took part in their national boxing championships. Eighty-six titles were up for grabs. Those titles went all over the country, to Portlaoise and Castlerea, Kilfenora and Callan, Geesala and Bunclody, Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Donegal.

Yet those 200 competitors were only the tip of the iceberg as most of them had to compete at local level to qualify for the championships. It's some story considering that five years ago there wasn't even a national women's championships. And even ten years ago the idea of Irish women boxing at all would have been unthinkable in certain quarters. But now boxing is probably the fastest growing sport for Irish girls.

"There has been a massive increase in participation in women's boxing in recent years, led by the youngsters," an IABA spokesman told me. There are a number of reasons including, as always in amateur boxing, the amount of hard work being put in at local level by selfless and dedicated coaches.

But perhaps the main one is the Katie Taylor Effect. As the man from the IABA put it, "they are undoubtedly inspired by Katie Taylor. They think she's a superstar, which she is I guess."

I don't know if any Irish sports star is as universally loved and respected as Katie Taylor. Her extraordinary talent has a lot to do with that, three world and five European titles as well as two World Boxer of the Year awards speak for themselves. But that's not the whole story. People also like Katie Taylor because she comes across as remarkably unassuming. On television, she is articulate, confident, knowledgeable and good mannered, and a highly astute pundit in her own right.

I'm always wary of ascribing moral qualities to sportspeople just because they happen to be good at what they do. But to all outward appearances she is a credit to her sport, her country, her faith and her family. I remember seeing her at the Stadium last year during the men's championships. Everyone's eyes were on her but she gave no sign of noticing, just settled into her seat with a few friends and concentrated on the fights, her viewing punctuated by animated discussions and conversations about what was happening. She was a picture of absorption that night, someone utterly immersed in her natural element and happy there.

If all goes to plan at the London Olympics, Katie Taylor will become even more of a household name than she is now and next year's girls boxing championships will be even more hotly contested. Because, like a great performer in any sphere, she is a role model. Youngsters admire the beauty and brilliance of what she does to such an extent that they want to do it too. That longing to emulate their heroine propels them into the ring.

Not till I had daughters did I realise how much girls crave female role models in what can seem to them a world dominated by male icons of achievement. My daughters ask me why there weren't any women in the Fianna, if any women went to the South Pole along with Captain Scott and Tom Crean, if there were any female astronauts. They relish stories about Grace O'Malley, Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie, women prospering in fields often seen as the preserve of men. It meant a lot to them to see Noel O'Leary bring the Sam Maguire to their school. But it meant a lot more to them to see Nollaig Cleary bringing the Brendan Martin Cup won by the Cork women's team. It's different for girls. When the Olympics come round we'll sit and watch Katie Taylor together and they'll feel pride that our leading medal hope at the games was once an Irish girl like themselves.

It's remarkable how many of our current star performers are women, given that this is a country where discrimination against that sex was once enshrined in law and approved by convention. Derval O'Rourke, Gráinne Murphy, the Maguire twins, Nina Carberry, Olive Loughnane, Jessica Kurten, the list goes on.

But Katie Taylor, like Sonia O'Sullivan before her, is something special, the very best in the world at what she does. She is inspiring a generation of young women boxers to follow in her footsteps. You may not have heard of Belfast's Christine Gargan and Nicole Meli, Donegal's Austeja Accuieta or Macroom's Christina Desmond, but these teenagers have already competed with distinction at international level. I'm sure too that the likes of Erin Heneghan from Ballinrobe, Shauna Blaney from Navan and Dolores Hughes from Emyvale, all crowned national champions after convincing victories in the younger age-groups last weekend, look at Katie Taylor and think, 'I can do that someday.'

The champion's influence isn't confined to boxing because when great athletes do us proud on the world stage they encourage people of all ages to get out on the road, or back with the team or into the gym. They can be great forces for good in society, particularly if they conduct themselves in the manner of Katie Taylor.

That's why Professor Donal O'Shea, chairman of the Irish Heart Foundation Nutrition Council, has drawn so much ire for his comment that Taylor's advertising of Lucozade Sport is "disgusting".

What really got people's backs up was the professor's emotive choice of words. Disgusting is a pretty strong word, especially when used in a country which provides the connoisseur of disgust with so much to relish. Cardinal Brady's behaviour over the Brendan Smith affair and the revelations of the Moriarty Tribunal, these are disgusting. A young woman advertising an energy drink, not so much.

In fairness to Professor O'Shea, who was speaking to the Dáil Committee on Health and Children about the subject of childhood obesity, his very next words were, "She is fantastic, she needs the sponsorship." So portraying him as some kind of crank with a grudge against our most popular sportswoman simply isn't fair. There's no need to send a lynch mob after the man. Anyway, they're busy chasing Ray Darcy at the moment.

But I still think his statement that "when Katie Taylor, our outstanding role model, goes to the Olympic games she will be most closely associated with Lucozade Sport and all the kids who admire her will believe that when they run around and burn 100 calories they need to drink 150 calories" is somewhat unfair.

It's unfair because he makes no reference to the fact that few other Irish women are doing so much, by their example, to get kids involved in sport in the first place. The hundreds, maybe thousands of girls who have taken up boxing will have subjected themselves to a disciplined training regime in order to try and make the national championships, instilling good habits which there's a good chance they'll maintain when they grow up.

And at least the kids who admire Katie Taylor are running around and burning 100 calories in the first place. There are plenty of other role models for kids whose messages are far more detrimental to their welfare. Singling out someone who gives such a positive example seems slightly perverse.

Kids may decide that they want to drink Lucozade Sport because Katie Taylor does but it's up to parents to ensure they don't overdo it and that they're getting the exercise which will make an occasional indulgence irrelevant to their overall health. Katie Taylor may inspire your children but she's not going to bring them up for you.

Professor O'Shea should think about those girls in the Stadium last week, the work they do and the example they will set to their peer group back at home. And maybe next time he's in front of a committee he might acknowledge that this is Katie Taylor's true legacy and that, as can happen to any pugilist, he was guilty of a wild swing which accidentally landed below the belt.

It probably won't matter to the target of his criticism in any event. She's always been very hard to hurt. And as a committed Christian she knows how to turn the other cheek, when she's outside the ring.

Katie will go on. Katie abides.

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