Thursday 18 July 2019

Muhammad Ali spoke truth to power, Conor McGregor cleans its shoes with his tongue

Russian President Vladimir Putin and MMA fighter Conor McGregor. Photo: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin and MMA fighter Conor McGregor. Photo: Reuters
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

So who were the outstanding performers in the World Cup final? Pogba? Mbappe? Perisic? My vote goes to Veronika Nikulshina, Olga Pakhtusova, Olga Kurachyova and Pyotr Verzilov, the four members of the Pussy Riot group who invaded the pitch in Moscow to protest against Vladimir Putin's regime.

The language of bravery is often used when pundits talk about football. We hear a lot, for example, about 'moral courage' which generally refers to a willingness to pass the ball short in a crowded midfield area.

But nothing you see in the sporting arena this year will display the fearlessness which Pussy Riot have shown, not just last Sunday but for the past number of years by their determination to embarrass a man who has had no qualms about persecuting, and in some cases liquidating, those who dissent against his government.

In the New Yorker Russian writer Masha Gessen praised the group for being "the only people to make a meaningful statement about Russian politics during the World Cup". Gessen, who's as good a political writer as you'll read anywhere, has produced excellent books on both Putin and Pussy Riot. She's also a gay woman who left Russia for the US because she was worried she might lose custody of her children when Putin ally, and deranged homophobe, Vladimir Milonov, started condemning, "Masha Gessen's perverted family".

Pussy Riot are often described as a rock group but they're really a kind of performance art collective cum protest movement. One of the requests in the statement they issued after the protest was that Putin's government stop jailing people for liking or sharing things on social media. Because, as Gessen points out, "In Putin's Russia people are behind bars for political crimes, which do in fact include such social media behaviour." After a Pussy Riot protest in Moscow six years ago, two members of the group were sentenced to 22 months in prison.

There's been quite a lot of self-congratulatory stuff written recently about a growing political awareness among sports journalists, something which mainly seems to be based on the fact that some of them retweet articles about Colin Kaepernick and share the odd Trump meme. But, as Gessen notes, "Unlike the 2014 Winter Olympics where Pussy Riot also protested, the World Cup has occasioned little criticism or reflection by the western media."

Most reporters entirely ignored the political context of the tournament. Others told us that the World Cup showed that kinder, gentler side of Putin's Russia which we don't often hear about or went on about Putin 'having a good World Cup', as though they were giving him eight marks out of 10 for doing a lot of unseen work in midfield.

There's an ignoble tradition of this kind of thing in our trade. Rugby writers covered Lions tours to South Africa for many years without making any adverse comment about apartheid while various dictatorships have gotten an easy ride when hosting major events. A familiar canard in such circumstances is the claim that the tournament will somehow lead to the country opening up and becoming more democratic. It did the rounds this time as it did during the Beijing Olympics when journos assured us this could be a turning point for China where, 10 years later, in the words of left-wing writer Stuart Jeffries, "Millions of overworked, underpaid workers have been driven to the brink of suicide to keep those in the west playing with their iPads."

Putting the tin hat on it all was Conor McGregor, who didn't just pose for photos with Putin at the final but declared, "The man is one of the greatest leaders of our time and I was honored to attend such a landmark event along with him." Where Muhammad Ali spoke truth to power, Conor McGregor cleans its shoes with his tongue. For all his bluster, he hasn't one hundredth the amount of courage showed by the members of Pussy Riot. Irish reaction to his fawning was largely confined to, "Wow, how cool is that. Total ledge. Top bloke. Here's a photo of Conor eating spaghetti in the stands. Ha ha ha."

The next World Cup takes place in Qatar where it will be played on the bones of labourers worked to death building the stadia. I confidently predict that the media will be humbled by the decency and friendliness of the ordinary people of Qatar, will say how hurt those people were by outside criticism and will insist that the World Cup promises a brighter day for immigrant workers in the Gulf States.

The road goes on forever and the party never ends. Cue goals montage.

The last word: It's time we scrapped this relic of the past

It's sickening that Cork County Board have turned down a request from the organisers of the Liam Miller charity match to have the game played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Here you have a game being played to benefit the family of a young man who died from cancer which would attract a far greater attendance were it played in the county's largest stadium yet the GAA have decided to adopt the 'rules are rules' attitude.

What would have been wrong with allowing the game to go ahead and paying any fine imposed by Croke Park? Surely it would have been worth it. Instead you're left with the impression that the County Board are hiding behind the rules to avoid doing something they didn't want to do anyway.

Cork had no problem allowing the stadium to be part of Ireland's Rugby World Cup bid. Rugby, Ed Sheeran, American football and Taylor Swift are all apparently welcome in GAA stadiums while a match in memory of a man who played Gaelic games is not. It's time the GAA left these things up to the discretion of County Boards and clubs. The rule is a relic of a meaner, more punitive Ireland. Scrap the bloody thing.

* * * * *

Politicians often try to use the euphoria whipped up by sporting victories to their advantage. Remember Charlie Haughey at the Tour de France? But this can backfire, British PM Harold Wilson was convinced that England's defeat in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final contributed to his Labour Party's surprise defeat in that summer's general election.

Many Haitians are fanatical supporters of Brazil so the country's government thought it might be a crafty move to raise fuel prices by 40 per cent when the South Americans played Belgium in the quarter-final as the populace might be too busy celebrating to notice. Instead Brazil lost, there were riots in which three people died and Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant had to resign.

It can be hard to judge these things. But I bet Leo Varadkar would really fancy calling an election on the back of a successful Irish Rugby World Cup campaign next year.

* * * * *

You won't see a better illustration of sporting happiness than the reaction of Finn Valley AC high jumper Sommer Lecky when she cleared the 1.90 metre height which gave her a surprise silver medal at the world under 20 athletics championships this day last week. Exultation and amazement combined to memorable effect as the Donegal woman sprinted joyfully away from the scene of her triumph in Tampere, Finland.

Lecky's leap completed a spectacular fortnight for Irish athletics at under-age level. There was more good news at senior level in the Cork City Sports where Bandon's Phil Healy became the first Irish woman to break 23 seconds for 200m and Marcus Lawler, a former outstanding junior recently dogged by injury, ran a big PB for the same distance to place him in the European top 12. The rising tide is lifting all boats for Irish athletics right now.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw-In: Kerry back to their best, Connolly’s return and Cork’s baffling inconsistency

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport