Monday 5 December 2016

Paul Kimmage: These athletes are tougher than Conor McGregor but nobody knows their names

Published 10/01/2016 | 17:00

Olympic rowing hopefuls Barbara O’Brien, Leonora Kennedy, Sinead Jennings, Sarah Dolan and Claire Lambe deserve more recognition and reward
Olympic rowing hopefuls Barbara O’Brien, Leonora Kennedy, Sinead Jennings, Sarah Dolan and Claire Lambe deserve more recognition and reward

"Perhaps all music, even the newest, is not so much something discovered as something that re-emerges from where it lay buried in the memory, inaudible as a melody cut in a disc of flesh. A composer lets me hear a song that has always been shut up silent within me." Jean Genet, 'Prisoner of Love'

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The traffic around Grenoble was chronic that evening. The penultimate stage of the Tour de France had ended and, work complete, I had just set out on the long drive towards Paris when my editor called with a final request. Barring a catastrophe, Cadel Evans was about to become the first Australian in history to win the Tour - a natural front-page lead on a day with no football.

"Can you write something positive about Cadel?" he asked.

"Sure," I replied.

But I wasn't sure at all, and within seconds it had started to grate on me.

Why does it have to be 'positive'? Can I not just call it as I see it? Can I not just write a fucking piece!

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I pulled into a service station, ordered a strong black coffee and (rather unusually for me) managed to meet the deadline for the 700 words. It wasn't exactly Hugh McIlvanney, but it wasn't the worst piece I've written:

"Evans has always fascinated. He's been a top-ranked professional for almost a decade now but we hardly know him. He's too chunky to be a 'climber', too reserved to be an Australian and his victory salutes are almost embarrassing. Add the square jaw, the squeaky voice and the dimple on his chin, and you've got a star who most definitely was not made for Hollywood."

And it also had some bite:

"In 2008, when the Tour was at his mercy, Evans made headlines for wearing a 'Free Tibet' T-shirt but we're still waiting for a major statement on doping. He's been cheated by a lot of dopers over the years, and had a lot of dopers for team-mates, so it would be nice to know where he stands."

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It was no great surprise that my editor didn't like it, and no great surprise that the piece was not published. A year later, when Lance Armstrong was finally exposed, The Sunday Times would roll out the trumpets and parade themselves as "the champions of journalism" but the truth was that they no longer had the stomach for it. I had witnessed it several times that year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

A little part of me died the next morning when I opened the paper. There are only so many times you can disappoint your boss and I was running out of credits. Six months later I was out of a job. People ask all the time: "Why the long face? Is there nothing about sport that excites you any more? Is there nothing about your job that you love?"

Well, lets see now. Shall we make a list? The FIFA scandal? The corruption at the IAAF? The ineptitude of the UCI? The violence of UFC? Perverted coaches in swimming? Concussion in rugby? Diving in football? Doping in cycling? Fixing in cricket? Doping in racing? The pearly white sheen - 'no doping here' - of football, rugby and tennis?

This long face has been 26 years in the making. The music has died.

A Friday morning at the National Rowing Centre on Iniscarra Lake in County Cork. Don McLachlan, the lead coach of the Rowing Ireland High Performance programme, is standing at the entrance of the boathouse with a pair of gloves, a Trapper hat and a fur-lined jump-suit: "Put those on," he says. "You won't believe how cold it gets out there."

It's almost dark on the lake. A thin sheen of ice has formed on the jetty. He checks the Rib and watches as his charges emerge from a warm-up in the gym and carry their boats to the water: Sinead Jennings and Claire Lambe in the Double Scull; Leonora Kennedy and Barbara O'Brien in the Pair; Sanita Puspure and Sarah Dolan in two Single Sculls.

Their day begins with a gentle four-kilometre loop to Rooves Bridge. The coach waits for them to return, steers the Rib out to meet them and then the serious stuff - some fartlek work with varying stroke rates and technical adjustments - begins on the trip to the Iniscarra Dam.

I've watched these sessions a thousand times before - footballers and tennis players and swimmers and cyclists and runners - but there is nothing so pure as a rower's love for rowing and as I sit watching the symphony of blades as the sun rises gently on the lake, I am filled with a joy that reminds me of a scene from The Shawshank Redemption.

Perhaps you remember it? It happens three-quarter ways through the film after Andy (Tim Robbins) has earned some credits for helping the warden with his taxes and is rewarded with some old LPs for the prison library. He takes a recording of The Marriage of Figaro, locks himself into an office and decides to give it an air on the prison PA. The response is extraordinary. Every prisoner in the yard stops in his tracks and is held spellbound by the music.

One is the film's narrator, Red (Morgan Freeman): "I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about," he says. "Truth is, I don't wanna know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.

"I tell you, those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a grim place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our trapped little cage and made the walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free."

Free was how it felt watching those women on Friday.

Why? I don't know. Maybe it's the fact that they've been on this lake seven days a week, 50 weeks a year, in the hope of rowing for their country at the Olympics. Maybe it's the fact that their country treats them abysmally - no recognition, paltry grants, minimal support - and really doesn't care.

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Maybe it's the fact that they are tougher than Conor McGregor but nobody knows their names.

Maybe it's just a great sport and they are just great people.

"What's your take on McGregor?" Kennedy asked, when the session had ended and we retired to the canteen.

"I think he's interesting, but I'm repulsed by what he does," I replied.

"Maybe we should start hitting each other," Puspure laughed. "We might get more coverage then."

The rowers were back on the lake after breakfast. I returned the kit to Don and drove home to Dublin with their music in my head. The remarkable Jennings and Lambe have qualified for Rio; Puspure, Kennedy, O'Brien and Dolan have some important qualifiers looming and still have a chance. I haven't been to an Olympics since Sydney but if there was one story I could cover this year it would be this one.

And that's saying something girls.

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