Thursday 19 October 2017

Show must go on despite the inevitable controversy

Olympics scandal does not tarnish all of Irish sport, writes John O'Brien

IT'S a fair bet that anyone with a vested interest in Ireland's Olympics build-up -- athlete, official, journalist, whatever -- would, at some stage, have remarked over the past few weeks or months on how eerily quiet the whole thing was progressing. No rows or bitter fall-outs. No recriminations. The drugs' story was out of the way by January. Plain sailing all the way to July.

Or so we thought. Blasted fools, the lot of us. Mugs. Like London buses, an iconic symbol of these Olympics, they merely got clogged up in traffic and arrived at the same stop all at once. On the same day Catriona Cuddihy was left a tearful wreck on the grassbank in Santry, her place on the women's 400m relay squad awarded on appeal to Joanna Mills, Denis Lynch learned that his Olympic showjumping spot was in mortal danger. The shrapnel hasn't stopped flying since.

A surreal air has hung like a shroud over the whole week. A long-winded appeals' process might finally have fallen in Cuddihy's favour, but the athletics' community remains sharply divided by the whole relay affair. Joe Ward's appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Thursday was so sudden it took even those in Irish boxing's inner sanctum unawares. Lynch's attempt yesterday was slightly more predictable, but still late enough in the day to induce a mild air of shock.

All these things would, on their own, have constituted a week of unrelenting drama, but the news yesterday morning that an Irish Olympian had allegedly placed bets on a rival competitor during a race sent it nuclear. On the back of International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge's recent declaration that illegal gambling stood alongside doping as the chief threat to a morally complicit Games, it threatened to send Irish Olympic sport viral again for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, for now it would be as well to hold off on the kind of snap moral judgements that will spread through the online world like a deadly fungus. If the allegations are shown to have substance, the athlete involved will pay a heavy price and colleagues and loved ones will suffer from the fall-out too. And let's not imagine that having a flutter on a sports event is even close to squirrelling millions away in offshore property deals or accepting backhanders for a vote. It's not in the same moral universe.

Ignore too the eminently predictable sensationalist taglines. Disappointingly for some, no doubt, this hasn't been another week of shame for Irish sport. It's not even close. Nothing has happened for any Irish sports fan or athlete or administrator to feel embarrassed or sorry about. We haven't brought the Games into disrepute. They'll still go on.

All of these events were unfortunate and, clearly, it would have been preferable if none of them had happened. They are distressing for those caught in the crossfire and yet they offer more evidence that sport, like life, is imperfect and often fails to follow the uplifting, redemptive narrative the architects of the Olympic dream would like. It's messy and sometimes tempts its practitioners down a road they never thought they'd travel. Just like life itself.

Sometimes you wonder if we ever learned any lessons from Saipan and the utterly preposterous wailing that ensued over two football men having an argument that couldn't be resolved. Every mid-range crisis is elevated into another global embarrassment while every sporting injustice perpetrated against an Irish team or athlete makes the old 800 years of oppression seem a picnic by comparison.

Which was a genuine shame for Ward, because the Moate fighter was clearly hard done by when beaten in the final Olympic qualifier in Trabzon in April. Yet the grounds for a successful CAS appeal seemed slim. Appealing against the decision not to be awarded a wild card was surely a vain exercise when, some time back, the IOC made it clear that Ireland were not eligible for such invitations. There the matter should have rested. It didn't.

Why the whole relay kerfuffle should have become so elongated is a mystery too. While Charles van Commenee, UK director of athletics, was making hard decisions about world and European medallists, we were getting hot and bothered about two young athletes who would, at best, be reserves anyway. Sure, there was an important principle at play here, but worth getting so worked up about? Hardly.

Even showjumping hardly deserves a bad rap here. In taking the Olympic place off Lynch, the leaders of Horse Sport Ireland were making a brave decision based on what they felt was the best for the sport and its integrity. It wasn't one they took lightly. They deserve a break. The situation wasn't of their own making.

The gambling allegations are more shocking but we'll get over them and life, and the Olympics, will go on. Over the weekend, we met an Irish athlete who hadn't yet made it to the Village and, caught in his own protective bubble, wasn't up to speed on events. Informed of the gambling story and the ongoing Lynch appeal, he merely shrugged and went on his merry way.

That's the way most of them are. Wrapped up in their own little world, not too bothered what the rest are getting up to. Thankfully, our shock and our shame won't mean much to any of them.

Sunday Indo Sport

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