There's more to the Katie Taylor story than her strong faith, writes John O'Brien
It's never less than a blessing that at times of momentous sporting achievement there's always a battalion of experts at hand, ready to wade in and decipher the elusive meaning for us. Ten days after winning Olympic gold in the ExCeL Arena, we're almost there with Katie Taylor. We know we should be feeling something terribly profound, we're just not sure what it is because Fintan O'Toole hasn't told us yet.
Instead we got John Waters in Friday's The Irish Times denigrating the entire Irish sports media on the basis, it seems, of one brief interview Taylor gave to RTE in the immediate aftermath of her Olympic final. To some in the media, Taylor's Christian faith seemed to come as a revelation, a guiltily-kept secret by a conspiracy of sports reporters either too ashamed or too embarrassed to know how to deal with it.
It would have been all harmless enough had the Vincent Browne show -- presented by Sam Smyth -- last Tuesday night not strayed into the realm of the cringe-worthy. The sight of four middle-aged adults proclaiming solemnly on Taylor's achievements would have fitted snugly into that Father Ted episode with the lovely girls if there had been a shred of humour in it. Sitting through a thousand Team Ireland homecomings would have constituted a lesser punishment.
Here are some of the things we learned about Taylor last week. She's wonderful. She's magnificent. She's mesmeric. She has the walk of a queen (Theo Dorgan). She has astonishing teeth (Sam Smyth). She's at ease in the world because she understands reality as coherent and positive (Waters -- who else?). She's the best advert for God we've ever had. She can do anything she wants, although she'll never become Pope.
Now, sportswriters can be a vainglorious lot at the best of times but how fair was it last week that an entire trade should be maligned by people displaying such a casual disregard for the sporting context of the story? Dorgan, a member of Aosdána, seemed to think Taylor had won gold despite any State assistance whatsoever, despite the €280,000 she has received in Sports Council grants over the past seven years. Not a lot, perhaps, but that's a different argument.
The columnist Justine McCarthy was under the impression that 25,000 Irish people had somehow packed the 10,000-capacity ExCeL Arena and sang God Save The Queen while British fighter Nicola Adams contested the women's flyweight final. Nothing unusual about that. Reporters who normally trade on hard facts seem joyously liberated from them when it comes to the mundane business of sport. It doesn't stop them wittering on at great length.
Contrary to what was claimed last week, Katie Taylor has had a significant presence on the sports pages for at least the past four years now -- the defence of her world title in China in 2008 propelled her into the mainstream -- and from that time her faith has always been a keen topic of discussion. Palpably uncomfortable giving interviews, it was clear how relaxed she became when the subject of her faith cropped up, and that it was a critical part of her make-up.
Who exactly is afraid of it? Last Saturday morning, Taylor gave a lengthy interview on Newstalk in which her Christianity was discussed in detail. Her mother, Bridget, had given a lengthy newspaper interview about the faith she shares with her daughter the previous week. Adam Nolan, a club colleague of Taylor's, spoke of his belief in the power of prayer. All of this appeared in the sports sections of various newspapers. If you don't read the sports pages, perhaps, none of it exists.
Nor did any of those sneering at the humble sportswriters present a convincing argument as to why we should elevate Taylor's faith above her other qualities. The Vincent Browne show was lifted from farce by the presence of Pete Hamill, an erudite and distinguished American journalist, who brought something to the table the others lacked -- a knowledge of boxing. His descriptions of Taylor as a fighter were crisp and beautifully delivered, offering a powerful counterpoint to those who wanted to drag the conversation down a different road.
Hamill bore the weary look of a man who has lived his life in a country where religion has taken such a grip that it threatens to become a contest in itself during the upcoming presidential election race and where the percentage of those claiming to be born-again christians in the megabuck worlds of the NBA and NFL is believed to be hurtling rapidly towards 50, many of them ever eager to find a sporting pulpit in order to proclaim it.
None more famously than Tim Tebow, a reserve Denver Broncos quarterback who thrilled or scandalised the nation last season, depending on where you stood, with his overt displays of Christianity, which included kneeling in prayerful pose -- Tebowing -- any time he delivered a touchdown pass. Tebow's actions neatly polarised America. He was vilified by those turned off by such ostentatious flouting of his faith, tirelessly defended by those who saw the attacks on Tebow as an attack on God.
None of this reflects in any way on Katie Taylor and how she chooses to live her life. Her faith is clearly important to her and she is not the first to speak publicly about it. Andrew Trimble first spoke about his faith seven years ago and many of his Ulster team-mates are fellow christian travellers. Eric Miller, the former Leinster player, explained how discovering God had helped him through the difficult years after retirement and spoke of the role chaplaincy could play in the spiritually tricky world of professional sport.
He spoke too of how difficult it had been to openly express such beliefs and it is good that he felt able to do so and good too that Taylor, naturally reticent, can appear so confident and articulate when it comes to discussing her relationship with God. We shouldn't feel any moral compunction to delve deeper, however.
It's equally valid to ask those wading into the subject to engage first with the sporting dimension of the story. But few of them felt any need to bother.
That story needs to be reclaimed now. There was nothing wrong or strange about Taylor exalting God above everything else as the basis behind her success -- it is what she passionately believes after all -- but it would be nice to think that she gratefully acknowledges all the wonderful things that boxing has given her.
Because here's the thing. You can believe that Taylor wouldn't be a world or Olympic champion without her deep faith and her belief in the resurrection. It's true too, though, that without boxing nobody beyond her family and a few close friends would even know about it. In the temptation to emphasise her
faith, the sporting element of her story got shoved to the margins, as if boxing was a random vehicle she chose in order to drive her Biblical message.
But Taylor was boxing for years before publicly declaring her Christianity and if you were to walk inside the doors of the boxing gym on the South Circular Road and study the messages scrawled on the walls -- including a verse from Taylor's cherished Psalm 18 -- you'd learn that the boxers derive strength from a variety of sources and that you have entered a space where not one creed or worldview dominates, but where a sense of tolerance and love of individual expression coalesces to form an intense working environment.
Do we really need to understand why this is so? Boxing will probably always remain an overwhelmingly working-class sport but even within that narrow confine, the Ireland boxing set-up finds remarkable diversity: white, black, Catholic, Protestant, farmer, teacher, civil servant, traveller, born-again christian. You don't need Olympic medals to celebrate that.
Katie Taylor's faith is an extraordinary thing and critical to any understanding of her as a boxer and as a person. That much is true. But it's not the only part of her story. For some of us -- dullards on the back pages though we may be -- it's not even the most important part.