Saturday 19 January 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Heroes measuring up on world stage

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‘Exacerbating the problem is that neither the sport of rowing nor the O’Donovans possess a major sponsor. Now that the run-in to Tokyo has begun, it would be great to see that change.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Exacerbating the problem is that neither the sport of rowing nor the O’Donovans possess a major sponsor. Now that the run-in to Tokyo has begun, it would be great to see that change.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There's never been a year like it for variety of sporting success. Last week it was the turn of rowers Dominant Puspure and the O'Donovan brothers, Dominant and Dominant junior, along with the three-day eventing team of Dominant McCarthy, Dominant Ennis, Dominant Watson and Dominant Daniels.

With so many medallists to keep track of, no wonder Shane Ross is confused. When he hears Dominic Casey is the rowing coach, he'll surely ask his minions to double-check the name.

In TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the titular character declares: "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons." I've measured out mine in sporting events. Few things stick in my mind more than the memory of watching particular matches, races and bouts over the years. Last week's rowing and eventing contests will stay with me for a long time.

There we were on Saturday morning, myself and the twin daughters, sitting on the couch accompanied by that familiar feeling of combined elation and tension when the O'Donovans go into action. The nerves were particularly pronounced after the close shave Lisheen's finest had endured in the semi-final.

When they went against their usual pattern by taking an early lead we weren't sure what to make of it. Traditional Irish fatalism made us worry they'd gone off too fast but following the O'Donovans makes you trust them. They don't get much wrong.

Italy soon overhauled them and built up a substantial lead yet as the race moved into the second half the two lads, as they'd done in the Olympics, went into overdrive. Drawing level with the Italians, they looked so comfortable our level of tension dropped from 'almost unbearable' to 'fierce but nearly manageable'.

We wanted to see the Irish boat nose ahead. Did it happen there? It did I think. We weren't sure. They're definitely ahead there, aren't they? They were. It had been exciting enough when they charged into second in Rio but now the O'Donovans were out in front, every stroke bringing them closer to gold. All the same, we didn't relax till they were over the line. Then we leaped round the room.

For West Cork kids like mine, Gary and Paul are superheroes; home-grown versions of Spider-Man and Wolverine. The first thing we did after settling down was look at the boathouse of the rowing club where they learned their trade. All we needed to do was step out the front door. You'd hit it with a stone, or at least an arrow.

Why do these Irish triumphs mean so much to me? I'm not a great fan of nationalism because I know the damage caused by the creed's more virulent political manifestations. Sporting nationalism, on the other hand, seems largely benign when applied to those sports which don't attract huge crowds.

Victories in rowing and eventing don't engender a flag-waving orgy of national self-congratulation. Instead, there's something more organic, a quiet pride in the achievements of people you identify with because you know where they're coming from.

Skibbereen has received an unmistakable morale boost since the O'Donovans' Olympic breakthrough. The place feels different. It's hard to keep a smile off your face when you see the club's boats making their way down the Ilen. Or when people who visit ask you, as they almost invariably do, to see the Rowing Club. Then they'll comment about how small it is, but in a way which makes this a compliment.

I've got used to walking the dog and having cars pull up to ask me how they can get to Lisheen to see where the boys come from. If ever a duo put their home place on the map, it's Gary and Paul. That's important. Because they let kids know that heroes and high achievers can come from places like this, places which increasingly seem to be written off by a Dublin-based establishment who look at rural Ireland in terms of facts and figures and miss the enormous spirit which keeps our communal heart beating.

When my other daughter went to Irish college for the last couple of summers, every time she told someone where she came from, they'd mention the O'Donovans and how much they admired them. The lads have made Skibb cool.

It's a source of some amusement to me that in The Social Network, as hip and intelligent a movie as there's been in the last decade, the alpha-male status of the Winklevoss brothers as top dogs in Harvard is symbolised by their rowing prowess. The Winkelvi finished sixth in the Olympics. Gary and Paul finished second. Harvard is grand but it's no Skibbereen.

Tuesday. More tension. In the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Ireland's eventing team, against all expectations, lie in the silver medal position going into the show jumping. Olympic champions France are close behind in third, Japan lurk not too far away in fourth, England lead.

Our quartet of Pádraig McCarthy, Sarah Ennis, Sam Watson and Cathal Daniels have never been in a position like this before. Can they hold on? This is even more agonising. "How come when we're jumping, the fences look so big and hard but when everyone else is going they look so easy," asks one twin, encapsulating a familiar feeling for the partisan fan.

Ireland perform magnificently. Only two fences are knocked in four rounds of jumping. Not only does the team hold on to silver, they can win gold if Britain's last rider Rosalind Canter knocks two fences. The pint-sized Lincolnshire woman goes clear to win both team and individual gold, a display of sangfroid which commands respect even if you've just spent the previous few minutes praying she'd make flitters of the course.

Individual silver goes to Pádraig McCarthy. He's from Tipperary, his team-mates are from Meath, Carlow and Galway so the opportunities for local pride have been well spread around this week.

Those who'd describe three-day eventing as elitist ignore the manner in which equestrian sports are woven into the tapestry of rural life. Go to any agricultural show and at some stage your attention will be drawn to a bunch of youngsters guiding horses over jumps in the middle of the fields. Events like that are where many of our stars get their start. It's called show jumping for a reason.

One of the most cheering aspects of last week's successes was that they came in sports where we have a fine tradition. Us old-timers will remember Carlow rower Seán Drea going agonisingly close to a medal at the Montreal Olympics and leaving a mark on the national consciousness sufficient for him to be namechecked in an episode of Father Ted. A decade ago, another pair of Skibbereen rowers, Eugene Coakley and Tim Harnedy, were part of a lightweight four which won a world silver medal.

The eventing team had a direct link with past heroics; Sam Watson being the son of John, who won world silver back in 1978. Twelve years earlier, Ireland had won the world title. We've always been renowned for our cross-country and show jumping ability but have been held back by our shortcomings on the first day of the three. "Why won't the Irish learn some dressage," lamented Country Life magazine when reporting on our gallant bronze medal effort at Burghley in 1971.

Things have changed in that respect. The dressage scores for McCarthy and Ennis were the second and third best in World Championship history by Irish riders. The cross-country section saw all three Irish riders avoid time penalties for the first time ever and achieved the first clear round clean sweep in 24 years. To produce performances like this on the biggest stage during a championships which was disrupted and delayed by Hurricane Florence is the definition of competitive excellence.

I've been remiss in not mentioning Sanita Puspure's gold medal win before now perhaps because I got the time wrong and missed the final. Yet hers is also a signal triumph not least because she soldiered through the barren days when weeks like this seemed a distant dream. The Latvian-turned-Corkwoman was Irish rowing's only Olympic competitor in 2012. Our multiple finalists in Plovdiv suggest she'll have plenty of company in Tokyo.

The O'Donovans will certainly be there. They've become world champions after a season where at one stage they had to pay for their own transport and borrow a boat to compete in World Cup races vital to their preparations. Rowing's State funding seems miserly when compared to its international achievement. It's time for the kind of boost hockey received after the World Cup finals.

Exacerbating the problem is that neither the sport nor the O'Donovans possess a major sponsor. Now that the run-in to Tokyo has begun, it would be great to see that change. Gary and Paul are talented, hard-working, ambitious, articulate and enormously popular.

You could not find better ambassadors or hitch your wagon to a more appealing pair of stars. Attention must be paid to these men. Surely there's a corporate sponsor out there who'll do right by these wonderful youngsters?

Come on plutocrats. What more could you want?

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