Wednesday 26 April 2017

Olympics: Small is beautiful in minority sports

The list of allocations from the Sports Council to the national governing bodies may simply look like a dull table of facts and figures. But in reality it's a document of great poetic beauty.

Because the list of the €11.85m allocated to 49 different governing bodies is actually an inspirational testament to the many different ways in which the people of this country have caught the sporting bug. The major sports got their whack of course, but what really catches the eye is the bodies which most people wouldn't even have known existed here.

An investigation of the list brings us into the hidden world of Irish sport where devotees of pursuits largely unheeded by the general public beaver away under the radar year after year. It is the world of baton twirling, of orienteering, of Olympic handball, of horseshoe pitching, of water-skiing, of American football played largely by Irishmen, of road bowling, ten pin bowling and bowls.

It would be easy to sneer at some of these small sports and wonder why the Sports Council are funding them. But that would be very wrong. One of those little associations, Bol Chumann na hEireann, which governs the great traditional sport of road bowling, is dear to my heart and anyone who saw the magnificent job they did of organising last year's European Championships in Cork would be loath to deny them a financial dig-out.

In any case, the money involved is not great. Bol Chumann got €19,605, the Croquet Association of Ireland got €6,000, the Irish American Football Association €22,000, the Baton Twirling Sport Association of Ireland €14,640, the Irish Water Ski Federation €13,500.

This largesse doesn't seem to be going to waste. Forgive my ignorance, but before last week I did not know that Ireland had a croquet team which travelled to the world U21 championships in Cairo, or indeed that anyone under 21 or not a member of the cast of Alice In Wonderland, played croquet. I did not know that two years ago Limerick hosted the world baton twirling championships, dominated, as one might expect, by Japan, the US and France. I was unaware that orienteering is popular enough for over 100 competitors to take part in both the girls and boys races in the recent Cork National Schools Championships. Or that Olympic handball has sufficient presence at primary school level to run a Leinster championship, last year won by Kentstown from Meath and Harold NS from Dublin. We also have a girls U15 national handball team which beat Scotland 32-12 last year. Go girls.

And, while I tuned into the Super Bowl last Sunday night, I didn't know that there was a Shamrock Bowl for the top two teams in an 11-team Irish American Football League which contains the likes of the West Dublin Rhinos, the Cork Admirals and the Craigavon Cowboys. UL Vikings will be going for four in a row this year after 2009's overtime win against the Dublin Rebels.

It also turns out that the Speleological Union of Ireland is not a militant body which represents local government employees but the governing association for caving. At the moment they're asking interested members to see if they can find Porrhomma Rosenhauri in either Doolin or Mitchelstown Caves. Don't worry, it's not a missing Finnish tourist but a type of cave spider which Manchester Museum's Department of Zoology want to get a look at. I'm sure the SUI will do the business.

The great thing about this is that for all these activities to take place there has to be a network of people drawing up schedules, setting up venues, making phone calls, putting in training, thinking about their sport, sometimes obsessing about it and always enjoying it.

We spend a lot of time worrying about where the country is heading, about George Lee and Eamonn Lillis and ghost estates and flooding and freezing and tribunals and crime rates and so on. That's why there's something marvellously reassuring about the thought of all those people indulging the best part of their nature in sports clubs all over Ireland.

Because we live in their country too.

Sunday Independent

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