Wednesday 19 June 2019

Shane Ross: 'Katie's homecoming was pure paradise for a minister with a monstrous ego'

We should celebrate our sporting triumphs - even when the heroes are as modest as Katie, writes Shane Ross

HERO: Undisputed World Lightweight Champion Katie Taylor. Photo: David Fitzgerald
HERO: Undisputed World Lightweight Champion Katie Taylor. Photo: David Fitzgerald
Charles Haughey with Tour de France winner Stephen Roche in Paris, 1987

Shane Ross

Last week I won the Tour de France, entered the ring with Muhammed Ali, scored the winning goal in Stuttgart in 1988 and left an aeroplane with the Beatles. According to the wits on social media at least!

Others saw me as the reincarnation of Charlie Haughey on the day that he flew to Paris, allegedly to be pictured with Ireland's winning cyclist, Stephen Roche.

After photobombing Katie Taylor, I was photoshopped into the company of the great and the good and popped up all over the internet. My grandchildren found it hilarious as they bombarded me with images of their grandfather gatecrashing the meetings of the mighty.

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In reality, I was a humble doughnut!

Political doughnuts are the sinners who love to be pictured with more charismatic or more popular figures than themselves. Not difficult for many of us mere mortals.

Katie Taylor is no mere mortal. Hands up, I surrender - Katie is one of my all-time heroes. I am shameless. Like thousands of others, I thoroughly enjoyed being photographed with her.

When the news came through of Katie's glorious victory in Madison Square Garden, the only question in the Department of Sport was whether she would want a civic reception. It was hers for the asking.

My best friends would never call me a shy, retiring type. I wanted a big celebration for her.

The world champion from Bray is, unlike most politicians, loath to linger in the limelight. In the recent past we had tried in vain to recognise her unrivalled status as Ireland's greatest ever boxer. She has always been, unlike me, camera shy.

Katie is unique. She dislikes the formal trappings. Last Tuesday morning there was no limousine awaiting her landing on the tarmac in Dublin. The word around the airport was that her car was sitting in the long-term car park.

After a lot of arm twisting, Katie agreed to an informal welcome at Dublin Airport. She and her manager, Brian Peters, were not keen for a jamboree. Katie is admirably low key.

Meeting her off the plane was a moment of poignancy. The last time I had encountered Katie was at the Rio Olympics. I had sat in the crowd cheering her on. Her shock, and arguably unjust, defeat at the hands of the Finn, Mira Potkonen, was devastating.

An hour after her loss in Rio, I left the boxing ring complex and, desolated, got into the car to head for another event. Suddenly on the side of the dusty Rio road, I spotted two women, alone, pulling their suitcases, in search of a taxi. They were Katie and her mother, Bridget. I got out of the car to sympathise. I swear they were close to tears, polite and dignified; but very alone. Defeat has few friends.

Last Tuesday morning Katie emerged from the plane, again with her mother, but this time with the world at her feet, any previous disappointments long behind her. I was privileged to meet her. The return to Dublin was an emotional moment for them both. As we walked through the baggage hall, passengers from other flights flocked in her direction in search of selfies and autographs.

When we came landside the waiting crowd and media erupted. I held my speaking notes in my pocket hoping for a few seconds to deliver a word of welcome to Katie from the Irish Government. Make no mistake, I was delighted to be there and, whichever way you turned, there were cameras, dozens of them.

Not an ideal setting for a modest world champion. Paradise for a minister with a monstrous ego!

The crowd of fans, children in the majority, gave Katie a rapturous homecoming. I had a choice - go home or wait in the hope of delivering a few formal words of welcome. Hang around Katie until the microphones were free. So I took the political option. Savour the moment, make it last as long as possible. And hope the cameras and microphones pick up the Government's recognition. And maybe your own presence!

The joyous occasion raised a serious point. Surely government ministers should give appropriate welcomes to sports heroes returning home in triumph? I have been lucky to greet great footballers fresh from the Euros, the women's hockey team after their success in the World Cup, the brilliant athletes from the Special Olympics weighed down with medals following their victories.

If the Government and DAA had not arranged a welcome for Katie and the others at the airport, I would have been rightly chastised by the media for snubbing her, the Special Olympians, the footballers and the women's hockey players. I have unfortunately missed homecomings for others and been, understandably, rubbished for it.

We are enjoying a golden age in sport. Katie has lifted the nation's spirits to new heights.

Shane Duffy, the hero who scored the equaliser that saved the day for Ireland in Copenhagen last Friday night, should beware. I will spare him this time, but if he repeats it against Switzerland in the autumn I will be waiting for him at the airport!

Sunday Independent

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