Friday 23 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: The omission of O'Donovan, Barr and McIlroy from RTE Award shortlist is so senseless

Thomas Barr, Rory McIlroy and Paul O'Donovan all missed out on being shortlisted
Thomas Barr, Rory McIlroy and Paul O'Donovan all missed out on being shortlisted
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's just as well Paul O'Donovan won the world lightweight single sculls title in Rotterdam a couple of weeks after the Olympics. Because if he hadn't RTE wouldn't have thought he was good enough for a place on the 12-strong shortlist for Sports Person of the Year. An Olympic silver medal on its own wouldn't have done.

That's the only logical conclusion you can draw from the bizarre and mean-spirited decision of the national broadcaster to exclude Paul's brother Gary from the list of nominees. After all, Gary was beside Paul when they won Olympic silver and European gold in the lightweight double sculls. The only thing Paul did and Gary didn't was win that race in Rotterdam.

So we have to presume RTE think an Olympic silver medal on its own isn't enough to rank you among the top dozen Irish sports stars of 2016. An Olympic silver, according to RTE, just isn't that big of a deal. A somewhat questionable view, you might think, given that we've only won 10 of the things in the entire history of the Games.

What makes the omission of Gary O'Donovan all the more glaring is that RTE have decided to include both members of the gold medal-winning Paralympic cycling time trial combination, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal. They would probably respond that this was because Dunlevy, who is legally blind, used McCrystal as her sighted pilot, so you can't separate them. Well, Paul O'Donovan may be very talented but I don't think he'd have done very well in the double sculls on his own.

Given that it was easier to include rather than exclude Gary, it appears that the selection panel are making some kind of point.

Are they drawing on a vast fund of technical rowing knowledge which enabled them to detect that Gary wasn't actually rowing at all but just sitting there and letting Paul do all the work? Or is it perhaps the case that the charisma, high spirits and good humour which endeared Gary to the nation left RTE feeling that he needed to be taken down a peg or two? This is an insult and one which leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised. RTE were very quick to associate themselves with the O'Donovans once success was achieved but one of my abiding memories of that Olympic campaign was the general outrage in Skibbereen when the station didn't even bother to show their first race live. It felt then like rowing didn't matter very much to the folk out in Dublin 4. Their treatment of Gary O'Donovan merely confirms that initial impression.

Another sport which doesn't seem to matter much is athletics. Thomas Barr's extraordinary fourth place at the Olympics in the fastest 400 metre hurdles race ever run isn't judged worthy of recognition either. Nor does Ciara Mageean's return from injury to win bronze in the European Championships 1500m get her a place on the list.

OK, this is only a shortlist. Everyone always disagrees with a shortlist. But, even by RTE's standards, it is a remarkably silly one and worth examining for what it tells us about how sport is viewed in this country.

Most notably, as pointed out by that excellent athletics writer Cathal Dennehy earlier in the week, how we can never seem to properly distinguish achievement at international level from achievement at national level.

The soccer World Cup aside, no international event is as competitive as the Olympic athletics finals. There is a huge level of difficulty involved in doing what Thomas Barr did, setting national records all the way as he did so. Winning an Irish title is a cinch by comparison. Yet RTE awarded four out of the 12 places on the list to performers who only had local opposition to overcome, giving a place each to representatives from hurling, Gaelic football, ladies' football and camogie.

I am inordinately fond of Gaelic games, but it's parochialism of the worst order to argue that Thomas Barr's achievement is less worthy of recognition than that of Seamus Callanan or Brian Fenton. Or the performances of Cork footballer Bríd Stack or Kilkenny camogie player Denise Gaule in the last 12 months compare to those of Ciara Mageean. They're simply not in the same ballpark - or running track.

For that matter it's a nonsense that no member of the Irish football team which reached the last 16 of the European Championships is recognised. I've been beating the drum for Daryl Horgan and Dundalk for a long time but, objectively speaking, Robbie Brady's achievement in one of the great major finals campaigns in Irish soccer history is far greater.

Rory McIlroy bagged the FedEx Cup and finished the year ranked second in the world in an unusually competitive year in one of the world's most competitive sports. One pictures the RTE panel shaking their head at his inability to win a Major and deciding that simply wasn't good enough. His Irish Open victory was probably discounted as not meaning very much because the opposition wasn't world-class.

But it was considerably more world-class than hurling or camogie, which for all their charms are played at a serious level by less than half the counties in this small country.

I'm not arguing for the total exclusion of GAA players from the list. Seamus Callanan's performance in the All-Ireland final was one of those once-in-a-lifetime displays which deserves to be honoured. Briege Corkery's towering presence in both camogie and football entitled her to a place on last year's list. But it should take something really extraordinary for someone who participates in a merely local competition to outrank someone who competes in the international arena. A third of the places for Gaelic games in an unremarkable enough year is nonsense.

That is not to denigrate the achievements of the Dublin and Cork footballers in their own sphere, or of Bríd Stack and Brian Fenton, both admirable performers.

However, the omission of O'Donovan, Barr and McIlroy is so senseless that perhaps it's time for RTE to split the awards into a national and an international section - that way, like can be compared with like.

For our international performers, being an All-Ireland champion is merely the beginning of the journey. They know that the real test of your worth is how you do against what the rest of the world has to offer.

Pitted against competitors from richer, more populous nations with enviable traditions of coaching expertise, they learn the true extent of the talent which looked so unique back home. It is a merciless world out there.

Things are much easier for someone who competes only on a local level. Some GAA fans like to fantasise that this isn't so. They take refuge in anecdotal stuff about your man from the football team going on trial with an English soccer club and they said they never saw anyone as fit as him, the American journalist who couldn't believe this was an amateur game, that tweet about hurling being 'mental' from Gary in Stevenage WHICH WILL MAKE YOU PROUD TO BE IRISH. All of which means nothing. Neither does that old saw about hurling being 'the fastest field game in the world'.

What's the second fastest? Exactly.

That's not to say there aren't footballers and hurlers who would have the potential to be world-class if they played an international sport. But we cannot know that. It is not their fault that nobody else but us play these games. They are great sports but they are limited by the lack of an international dimension. That doesn't matter as long as we don't cod ourselves about it.

One of my most cherished emails to the column came after I made a similar point years back. A correspondent named John informed me, as though explaining something obvious to a child, that our international sportsmen were inferior to our GAA stars. "They're always getting beaten at the Olympics, which makes them losers. The Cork hurlers (that'll tell you how long ago this was) are winners because they're always winning All-Irelands." I used to get a great kick out of quoting this to people and together we'd have a bit of a giggle at your man.

Yet John has had the last laugh. Because judging from that Personality of the Year list, he's after landing a job with RTE. In four years' time he'll be joining the station jolly-up at the Olympics before returning home and deciding that a silver medal at the Games matters much less than an All-Ireland.

Vote Paul O'Donovan. You'll be voting for Gary too.

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