Wednesday 29 January 2020

100 defining moments: Why Saipan raised the bar for our athletes

John Greene

A group of us huddled around a small television in a golf course clubhouse in Co Wicklow. It was an evening in late May, 2002, and there was a nervous anticipation in the air as we waited for a major event in Irish sport to begin.

There were questions while we hung around: Was there any way back? Or was it too late? Fittingly, as an epitaph of sorts for Irish sport, this event was taking place in a darkly lit hotel room and being broadcast to the nation.

Tommie Gorman: "What I first want to get you to do is to put in context the reasons for your row: Was it bad blood between you and Mick McCarthy? Was it something deeper? Or was it because you were unhappy with the preparations of the Irish team for the World Cup and you always strive for perfection?"

Roy Keane: "Em, I think there's a lot of things. Obviously there's a lot been said over the last few days . . ."

In the same way that the other seminal moments in the Irish story made us look a little harder at ourselves, so too did the departure of Roy Keane from Ireland's World Cup squad in 2002. Here we were having one of those rows we are well used to, except this time the whole world was watching. A typically Irish feud that could have been played out in any hall in any parish in any sport in the country had gone global.

An academic once said the GAA was built on outbursts of violence punctuated by committee meetings. Well, Saipan led to a national committee meeting and, arguably, marked a significant turning point in the Irish sporting journey. This story now had two distinct eras, from 1916 to 2002, which we might refer to as 'Before Saipan', and the period since 2002, which we might call 'After Saipan'.

Before Saipan there was a lot of endeavour. Yes, there was success too, but mostly there was honest toil. After Saipan we learned to add some craft to that endeavour.

And After Saipan there was a new addition to our identity markers, those questions which could supposedly reveal a lot about you and your upbringing. Pro Treaty or Anti Treaty? Dev or Collins? Football or hurling? And now: Pro Keane or Anti Keane?

Love him or hate him - and few figures in any walk of Irish life in the last century have polarised opinion as much - but Keane's actions spawned a new kind of athlete in this country, one no longer held back by the apprehensions of the past. Keane raged against his own limitations first, then against the limitations of others, and a generation of sports stars followed suit, raising the bar on the scale of their ambition.

That is not to diminish what went before. On the contrary, it goes to show how extraordinary some of the achievements of the 20th century actually were, the product of men and women of remarkable single-minded determination rising above narrow expectations. In daring to do so they contributed to the growth of the nation, and made the road just a little bit easier for those to come.

The success of Irish sport in those years was largely domestic, typified best, but not exclusively, by the GAA. It was a triumph based on the spirit of community.

Now, we have grown wings. Travelling the world in pursuit of excellence and glory. And why not? Just as in other facets of Irish life, our new generation of athletes no longer succumb to the anxieties which seemed to hold us back for so long. Or, to borrow from Bob Dylan, we were so much older then, we're younger than that now.

The story of Irish sport over the last 100 years is very much like the story of Ireland. Which is as you might expect. Sport is part of what we are, not something ephemeral which happens on the weekends. It has been central in helping us to learn more about who and what we are.

Author JM Coetzee has written about the Platonic "desire to be held in honor by our peers as a spur to excellence" and this is part of what sport means to us, at home and abroad. Coetzee says "identifying the desire to be held in high esteem as one of the primary forces in the soul yields valuable insights", and "suggests why athletic sports - activities with no parallel in the rest of creation - are so important to human beings".

Ireland's sporting story is both good and bad, often at the same time. It is a story of censorship and feuding, violence and intolerance, bigotry and zealotry. But it is a story of great and unrelenting joy, of remarkable heroism and determination, of outstanding generosity of spirit, and of learning to celebrate failure as much as - if not sometimes more than - success. What could be more Irish than that?

Sunday Independent

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