Sport lets us showcase the qualities we most admire
So farewell then, 2011, with all your triumphs and traumas, pleasure and pain, laughter and tears.
And that, of course, was only the sport. On Sunday night, RTE's annual awards show concertinaed the 12 months into two hours of highlights and proved again in doing so that this is one very productive sporting island.
And it gave us another reminder, if we needed it, that there are a lot of good and serious people doing top-class work, to the highest international standards, in defiance of the usual mediocrity and mendacity to be found in so many other areas of our public life.
It was a terrific year: McIlroy, Clarke, Leinster; Trapattoni, Given, Dunne, Keane; Katie Taylor, John Joe Nevin, Fionnuala Britton; Aidan O'Brien; the Dubs, small ball and big; Tipp's incredible football minors and -- a personal favourite -- Kevin O'Brien's once-in-a-lifetime knock against England at the Cricket World Cup. (It's not too often an Irish sportswriter gets to nonchalantly throw in a line about a cricketer's 'knock', as if he's been using the terminology all his life.)
There is a spectrum of fame within sport, not always precisely calibrated to reflect the achievements of its strivers and dreamers. The top golfers are more or less permanently in the public spotlight. Likewise these days our rugby and soccer players. Others, like Nevin and Britton and Kevin O'Brien, will flare for a day or two in the headlights before returning to the background.
There is probably no sports man or woman in Ireland today who has to work harder to achieve success than Britton. A long-distance runner, the recently-crowned European Cross-Country champion, it is simply the nature of her sport. A tiny, elfin wisp of iron, Britton's regular training companion is pain, lactic acid, physical suffering. It takes a certain kind of person to accept it on a daily basis; and there aren't many of them around. And it is also part of the deal that her sport will give her back very little in terms of material reward.
The great prize on the horizon for Britton and so many unheralded grafters in the minority sports is the Olympic Games. To even reach the Olympics is to cross a rubicon; it is a landmark achievement in a lifetime of striving.
With London 2012 looming large next year, RTE's show looked forward as well as back. A lot of planning and commitment went into the production and it made for an impressive two hours of television. Some of the pre-recorded segments were beautifully made. The visual images were occasionally stunning. The feature on Katie Taylor started out as television and ended up closer to cinema: Taylor silhouetted against the ropes of a boxing ring, bathed in blue light, and billows of steam rising from her shoulders.
She was filmed at her boxing club in Bray. "Sometimes it's torture down here," she said, "the work you have to put in."
And she still hasn't qualified for London. At least we know her name. There are others who have qualified, or are close to qualification, and we barely know they exist. In what was a thoughtful editorial decision, RTE decided to introduce us to some of them. Mark Kenneally in the marathon, Natalya Coyle in the modern pentathlon, Mark Rohan in paracycling, Barry Murphy in swimming.
Deirdre Ryan finished sixth in the high jump at the World Championships in Korea last September. At 29, she has qualified for London. Only she knows how long and hard the road has been, and how much harder it was made for her by the still disgraceful athletics facilities in this country. Ciarán O'Lionaird finished 10th in the 1,500m final in Korea and has also qualified for London. Joe Sweeney finished fifth in the European Cross-Country championships.
Nicolas Roche reached 10th place during the Tour de France and finished 26th overall. An outstanding achievement by any standards. Daniel Martin won a stage in the Tour of Spain. They will be competing along with Philip Deignan at the Olympics.
Boxers, swimmers, runners, race walkers, showjumpers, cyclists, sailors and more besides, there are a lot of people striving quietly, and sometimes desperately, to become Olympians.
The UEFA European Championships will feature sportsmen at the other end of the fame game. It's nice to be back at the party. Other teams will bring fine wines and vintage champagnes to the do. We'll be bringing the six-packs of bottled stout. But no matter, even the prospect of Ireland at Euro 2012 is enough to raise a tingle of excitement, six months out from the event.
By the time the Spanish hove into view on June 14, that sense of excitement may well be diluted by a bad dose of dread. The thought of Whelan-Andrews versus Xavi-Iniesta tends to induce a few gulps of fear. But Trapattoni will be a reassuring presence. The man will have his players as ready as they can be.
He collected the manager of the year award last Sunday night. There was a long pause after he said his thanks. Then he added: "I don't know if we deserve or no." You couldn't doubt his sincerity or integrity for a second.
You couldn't doubt it in any of the men and women who were featured on the night. Long may the world of sport be a safe haven for those people who believe in truth and dedication, honesty and excellence.
Sunday Indo Sport
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