Friday 21 July 2017

Comment: Where do we draw the line between what is sport and what is insanity?

Alan Bonner RIP
Alan Bonner RIP
DOUGLAS, ISLE OF MAN - JUNE 02: John McGuiness leads David Johnson, Coner Cummins and Michael Dunlop over the mountain section during an evening practice at The Isle of Man TT Races on June 02, 2016 on Douglas, Isle of Man. (Photo by Linden Adams/Getty Images)

Jack O'Toole

"If Roger Federer misses a shot, he loses a point," Richard Quayle, a former Isle of Man TT winner told the New York Times on Wednesday. "If I miss an apex, I lose my life."

Roger Federer has forged a pretty remarkable career out of minimising his misses on the tennis court.

The 18-time Grand Slam winner has made a very comfortable living from his ability to stay at the apex of his sport for well over a decade, with the 35-year-old still competing at the very highest level in tennis, as evidenced by his 2017 Australian Open win over Rafael Nadal back in January.

But Federer exists in a controlled environment on the court in which he usually dictates play with his greatness. If he faces adversity or makes a mistake, he fights through it, like all great champions do across all great sports.

Superbike racing has it's own great champions - Valentino Rossi,  Marc Márquez, Casey Stoner - and while they have all achieved a tremendous amount of success in the worlds' premier Grand Prix motorcycle racing competition, the MotoGP, none of them have seriously considered competing in the Isle of Man TT, in what is aptly described as the world's most dangerous race.

Irishman Alan Bonner's death during Wednesday's qualifying session at the 2017 Isle of Man TT was tragic in so many different ways.

The Meath native left behind his fiancée Gemma, his family, his friends and teammates at Noel Williamson Racing in Swords, and a sport that he felt he was just starting to fulfill his potential in, following a near brush with death after a crash in Dundrod, Co. Antrim, in 2015 where he broke his back, sternum and lost his spleen.

At 33 years of age, Bonner was in the prime of his life, but so too was Jochem van den Hoek, who died a few hours before Bonner on Wednesday from injuries sustained in a crash at the 11th milestone in the Superstock race at the Isle of Man TT.

Adrian Archibald in action through Guthries during the PokerStars TT Supersport Junior race at the Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) Races on Jun 6, 2007 in Isle of Man. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Adrian Archibald in action through Guthries during the PokerStars TT Supersport Junior race at the Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) Races on Jun 6, 2007 in Isle of Man. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Van den Hoek's untimely death came just one day after Davey Lambert died in hospital following injuries he suffered in the event's opening Superbike race at Greeba Castle on Sunday.

Three deaths at one event in a week prompts definite cause for concern, 32 deaths over a decade asks where do we draw the line in sport between Roger Federer hitting a tennis ball, and Gene McDonnell hitting a horse at full speed at the Isle of Man TT before his bike exploded into a ball of flames after crashing into a row of parked cars?

A statement on Lambert's Facebook page on Tuesday described a scene in which far too many riders at the Isle of Man TT have experienced over the past few decades, the final goodbye to family and friends.

"With a heavy heart it saddens us to have to break the news that Davey lost his fight at 19.50pm this evening surround by his family and close friends.

"He went out of this world in exactly the way he would have wanted doing what he loved. He was a big man with an even bigger heart who will be sorely missed by so many."

Lambert's post would almost be poetic until you contrast it with the marketing tactics of Paul Phillips, known simply to many as “the boss of the TT".

After leaving his job in finance in 2006, Phillips accepted a government position as the Motorsport Development Manager for the Isle of Man, and was tasked immediately with resuscitating the island's beloved races.

The 38-year-old instantly set off to recruit a higher standard of riders, to negotiate new media contracts with broadcasters and to refocus the safety standards that some felt had become an afterthought, but he also introduced a new marketing emphasis for the event, which primarily focused on skill and danger as selling points.

"Before my tenure here, there was an underlying there's-nothing-to-see-here kind of mentality, and to the wider world, to me, it felt like we came across as a group as kind of bloodthirsty and ignorant," Phillips told the New York Times.

"Now, all of our marketing is about: 'This is the most dangerous race in the world. These guys are the gladiators'."

The danger selling point is a marketing gimmick that has been exercised for thousands of years.

Cesar sold it to the Romans and Ridley Scott sold it to all of us with Maximus Decimus Meridius and Russell Crowe in the 2001 Academy Award winning film Gladiator.

But where do we draw the line between what we're willing to accept as sport and what diverts off into flirting with insanity?

The UFC in MMA has skyrocketed in popularity over the last two decades on the back of the slogan 'as real as it gets', popularising hand-to-hand combat to the masses.

(R-L) Max Holloway punches Jose Aldo of Brazil in their UFC featherweight championship bout during the UFC 212 event at Jeunesse Arena on June 3, 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
(R-L) Max Holloway punches Jose Aldo of Brazil in their UFC featherweight championship bout during the UFC 212 event at Jeunesse Arena on June 3, 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

In most parts, we accept MMA as a legitimate sport with legitimate athletes, even though a big part of it's selling point is driven around violence.

Paul W. S. Anderson's 2008 film Death Race also thrives on violence, where inamtes race for their freedom in exchange for profits generated by the prison who broadcast a modern gladiator game participated in by the prisoners, whereby any racer that wins five races will be granted their freedom.

Death Race is a generic Jason Statham action film and not a sport, but it still raked in $75.7 million at the box office, signifying that it did tap into a market that was interested in the product the film conveyed.

Superbike racing is a sport, and the Isle of Man TT profit of it's very real consequences, with the UK government reporting last year that more than 42,000 people, from more than 40 countries, visited the island during the 2016 TT, spending an estimated £31.3 million (€36.04 million).

But gladiator style marketing gimmicks aside, should three deaths at a sporting event in less than one week force us to reconsider whether an event should be allowed to proceed?

Dozens of jockeys have died during horse racing events; the Grand National and Cheltenham are as big as they ever have been.

João Carvalho died 48 hours after fighting Charlie Ward at an MMA event at The National Stadium in Dublin last year; the UFC, MMA's premier fighting organisation, sold for $4.2 billion (€3.74 billion) in 2016.

Extreme sports have always had their risks and their athletes have always been fully aware of these risks and their inherent consequences.

Some people will just naturally be drawn towards events that are dangerous, and in most cases it's to satisfy an adrenaline rush, a desire to be exhilirated.

It's the same rush people look for when they bungee jump off the side of a cliff, or jump out of a plane, or consent to get in a cage and fight.

Marketing an event with a gladiatorial focus and branding it as 'the most dangerous race in the world', certainly raises it's own set of unique issues, but ultimately, over 42,000 people visited the Isle of Man in 2016 to watch that very event.

One of the most peculiar visitors at the 2016 Isle of Man TT was Christine Cowley, who lost her brother Paul at the 2004 Isle of Man TT, after he lost his grip on a practice lap near the ninth milepost.

To try and escape the heartache of losing her brother, Christine left the Isle of Man during the 2005 and 2006 races but found herself following the event online each year.

Paul and Christine used to watch the races together as kids with their family, and they even spread Paul's ashes at Quarterbridge Road, just a few hundred feet from where the finish line is located.

However, in 2007, she stayed to watch the event as she realised there was no escaping it, despite her best attempts in the previous two years.

When asked why she decided to stay in 2007, Cowley said: "I still love the TT. I love everything it represents."

The Isle of Man TT is tragically dangerous but so are a lot of sports, it just depends on the prism from which we view them.

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