Thursday 23 November 2017

National heroes conjure a feast out of thin rations

Tommy Conlon

In 1987 the great photographer Annie Leibovitz got a famous jockey to stand beside a famous basketball player -- the resulting image also became famous.

The jockey was Willie Shoemaker and the player was Wilt Chamberlain. One stood about five feet tall, the other about seven feet tall.

The photo came to mind after watching the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show last Sunday night, followed by RTE's Sports Awards show three nights later. Both programmes reviewed the sporting year and handed out gongs to the chosen winners, as per usual.

Wilt versus Willie: compare and contrast? There wasn't much point: not even the Oscars ceremony could have competed with the BBC's elephantine production this year. It was a spectacular show, a magnificent folly, a dazzling parade of star quality and celebrity glitter. It was televised live in front of a 12,000-plus audience; the viewing figures peaked at 12.5 million.

It is RTE's perennial misfortune to have the BBC on its doorstep and in our living rooms. We see always how things should be done, and then how they're actually done here. So how did David's sports department do this year against Goliath's next door?

Rather well, we thought, as things turned out. In fact most of the pre-recorded segments shone with BBC levels of class. They were very good. They were clearly made with a lot of care and professional commitment. There was on view editorial imagination and visual flair. They must have had a million images from which to choose: they chose well, and edited them into elegant sequences. The soundtracks were smart; Keith Richards singing You got the silver, you got the gold, while Derval O'Rourke and Gráinne Murphy talked medals was particularly cute.

The Micheál ó Muircheartaigh sequence was artful and thoughtful. For the Jimmy Magee soliloquy, Jimmy obviously found himself in the hands of a French film director -- even if Jimmy, like John Wayne, can really only play himself. But it looked cool. The League of Ireland package was ham, but ham of the highest quality. Nice to see too that someone thought of Eoin Morgan and made the effort to seek him out. Morgan is a Dubliner and a star of English cricket, currently with the Ashes squad in Australia.

"The main reason," said Morgan, "I've chosen to play with England is because the opportunities in Ireland weren't there." Same as a million other Irish emigrants, really, some of whose children and grandchildren won medals and made big names for themselves as British citizens. But that's another story.

Whether intentionally or not, the production carried a political subtext when it came to celebrating another rich year for amateur boxing. The men's international senior team brought home five medals from the European Championships in Moscow. Forty-two countries competed: Ireland finished second in the medals table, behind the host nation.

Anyone with even a passing interest knows that Billy Walsh, head of the high performance unit, has been integral to this ongoing success story. But back in the summer the IABA mysteriously decided that Walsh wasn't the man for the job. The Irish Sports Council, to its credit, stepped in and asked some serious questions. It flexed its muscle; Walsh stayed put in the job. And on Wednesday night RTE made sure everyone knew he was the right man. They lavished praise on his achievements. They did a Q&A with him using the format of the venerable BBC quiz show Mastermind -- a bit hackneyed, it's been done before.

Con Murphy's last question was: "What does the future hold for you?" We think he kept a straight face. We think Billy did too. Ideally he'd have replied, "Well now Con, if you had to ask me that six months ago . . ."

They gave the team-of-the-year award to the boxers. Katie Taylor said to them, "I'll see your RTE team-of-the-year and raise you my world-female-boxer-of-the-year." No, she didn't. But she's won that award twice. She won her third world title in the ring this year too. Taylor is a hardy bit of machinery. But really there should be an embargo on any further questions about Olympic medals. It's a long way away, anything could happen, and it's perilously difficult to achieve.

The only blips on the night came during the live interviews: silly questions, bad jokes, a few moments that bordered on the cringe. The star quality wasn't dazzling either. That's no one's fault; our best performers are mostly involved in low-key sports. We have to make do with thin rations in the international arena, and thinner still in the global market.

Graeme McDowell is an exception. He is now a star player in a global game; he has had a stunning 2010. Winning the US Open has put him in the history books. But with the best will in the world, a McDowell Major doesn't quite resonate in the same way as a Harrington Major. We just don't know him as well.

McDowell won the big RTE award. He was also nominated for the BBC's award. For AP McCoy, it was the other way round. His was probably as much for lifetime achievement as for winning the Grand National this year. It was wonderful to see him take centre stage in that enormous ceremony on Sunday night.

McCoy is a jockey, he's no Wilt Chamberlain; but he's a giant all the same.

thecouch@independent.ie

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