Opinion

Monday 10 December 2018

Athletes from different backgrounds united in sporting excellence for their new Ireland

Hold The Back Page

Thomas Barr. Photo: Sportsfile
Thomas Barr. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It's been a marvellous few weeks for Irish sport. The achievement of the hockey team in reaching the World Cup final tops the bill but we've also had European silver for Paul and Gary O'Donovan in rowing and the Irish women's team in modern pentathlon, as well as European bronze for Thomas Barr in athletics and Shane Ryan in swimming.

In Paralympic sport, cyclists Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal successfully defended their world road race and time trial titles. At junior level there was world silver for our 4x100m women's relay team and bronze for high jumper Sommer Lecky, and, at youth level, European gold for Sarah Healy in the 1500m and 3000m and Rhasidat Adeleke in the 200m, as well as silver for Sophie O'Sullivan in the 800m.

It's also worth remembering that earlier in the summer our boxers won a record-breaking six gold, eight silver and 10 bronze medals at the European senior women's, under 22, youths and schoolboys/schoolgirls championships. Those golds went to Amy Broadhurst in the under 22, Daina Moorehouse in the youths, Michael Faulkner in the schoolboys and Yasmin Meredith, Kaci Crowley and Winnie Christina McDonagh in the schoolgirls.

This is a remarkable haul for Ireland because in the past we have often come away from such championships with nothing. And it's coming in sports which generally don't feature on the national sporting radar. Even athletics and boxing, with their proud tradition in this country, generally take a back seat to the big three of Gaelic games, soccer and rugby.

The really impressive sporting nations are defined by their ability to excel in a variety of sports. Like Holland, who won medals at 10 different sports in the last Olympics, or New Zealand who medalled in eight or Croatia, a smaller country than ourselves, who made the podium in half a dozen sports and apparently play a bit of football on the side. We finally seem to be moving towards this kind of model after a long period of sporting monoculture.

That is a very good thing because if the main aim of national sporting policy is to encourage participation, then the greater variety of sports available the better. For too long the only options many kids had were Gaelic games, soccer or, perhaps, rugby. These are all great games but they're not for everyone. If a child didn't like them or didn't get picked on underage teams, they tended to drift away from sport altogether.

Now there's a much greater choice available. And international successes can lead to a boom in participation. Look at all those girls winning gold at boxing. That's the Katie Taylor effect.

One of the striking things about this recent run of success is how inclusive it's been. Every corner of the country has had a share in these victories. And not just the country but the island - witness the large contingent from Northern Ireland on the hockey team. There have been contributors from the diaspora; Ryan is American-born but his father's from Portarlington, O'Sullivan was born in Australia and her mother apparently used to do some running in Cork, while pentathlete Eilidh Prise hails from England.

The nation's immigrants are represented on the roll of honour, as is the Traveller community. There is a broad class range too, the socio-economic profile of the hockey and boxing medal winners are very different, but they are united in excellence. This list of winners looks like Ireland.

And not just Ireland but a new Ireland far removed from the days when only male sport was seen as real sport. Our two team silver medals were won by women, and in athletics and boxing women dominated. This is no coincidence. In a country where female sporting effort has been undervalued for too long, a dam has burst.

The great African-American poet Langston Hughes once asked, in his poem, 'Harlem': "What happens to a dream deferred?" He suggested that it explodes. That's what's happening in Irish women's sport at the moment.

So it's bizarre to see complaints about Shane Ross giving an extra €1.5m to Olympic sports on the back of the hockey team's success. The government gave €30m to Páirc Uí Chaoimh on grounds which have never been explained and there wasn't a word of objection.

But that's always been the attitude, hasn't it? The big three apparently deserve every bit of money they get. But even a relative pittance for smaller sports is too much for some to stomach. Pity about them, the sour-bellied bastards.

The Last Word: Managers should burn hate mail, not save it

Hand me down my violin, Jeeves. I see inter-county managers are sharing their heartbreak about the fact that they receive hate mail and get personal abuse on social media. Welcome to the club lads. You're not the only ones who have to put up with it. The best way to cope is to remind yourself that only an utter asshole is going to deliver anonymous abuse and that if someone is an asshole, why would you mind what they say?

It's a bit odd to see managers say they have 'boxes' of abusive letters at home. Why are you keeping them in a box, lads? The fire is the place for them, or the bin.

Still, it's all very upsetting for managers I'm sure. Perhaps it might make them think about the consequences when they lambaste referees after matches or when their county boards single out journalists. Or perhaps they think that personal abuse is only a problem when it affects managers and that everyone else deserves what they get.

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It's worth underlining what an achievement Thomas Barr's European bronze medal was. The men's 400m hurdles may have been the highest standard race at the championships. The top two, Karsten Warholm and Yasmani Copello, were the top two in last year's world championships and the time Barr ran in third place, 48.31, would actually have been enough to win gold at the worlds.

It was the second fastest time of Barr's career after the 47.97 he ran two years ago in an Olympic final, which was the only race in history with four men under 48 seconds.

The Waterford man is the very definition of a big-race performer. He's also extraordinarily tough. The 400m hurdles is a man killer of an event yet it's in the last 100 yards that Barr does his best work. Roll on the Tokyo Olympics.

* * * * *

Clifford Odets, the writer the Coen Brothers based Barton Fink on, wrote a play in the 1930s called Golden Boy (later turned into a fine musical starring Sammy Davis Junior.) It's about a classical violin prodigy forced by poverty to become a professional boxer instead. Tragic consequences ensue.

However, if Odets was around today he'd see that his hero might have been able to combine the careers. Because last week Hannah Rankin, a classical bassoonist who's played with orchestras from London to St Petersburg, fought Alicia Napoleon for the WBA super-middleweight title in New York and gave a very good account of herself before losing a points decision.

The fact that Rankin's entire previous fighting experience consisted of six pro fights and a couple of white collar boxing bouts perhaps indicates that those who think the puddle-deep nature of the women's pro game detracts from Katie Taylor's current achievements have a point. But fair play to the farmer's daughter from the shores of Loch Lomond all the same. It might be a while before we see Conor McGregor playing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in the National Concert Hall.

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