Wednesday 11 December 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Phenomenal Fionnuala proves the only size that really matters is the size of your heart'

Fionnuala McCormack of Kilcoole A.C., Co. Wicklow, on her way to winning the Senior Women event during the Irish Life Health National Senior, Junior & Juvenile Even Age Cross Country Championships at the National Sports Campus Abbotstown in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Fionnuala McCormack of Kilcoole A.C., Co. Wicklow, on her way to winning the Senior Women event during the Irish Life Health National Senior, Junior & Juvenile Even Age Cross Country Championships at the National Sports Campus Abbotstown in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There was a great photo of Fionnuala McCormack en route to winning her ninth national cross country title last Sunday. She's going through a patch of ground mucky enough to make walking through it seem a very unwise decision. And she's skipping through it, almost floating.

AIB advertise the All-Ireland Club Championships as 'The Toughest', but no individual in Irish sport has a better claim to that title than the Wicklow woman who, in addition to that national nine-timer, has won the European Championships twice and finished in the top six on several occasions.

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McCormack is the toughest because nothing is tougher than competitive cross-country running. There's a road running boom at the moment but very few of those taking part would ever dream of entering a cross-country race because the things are just so daunting.

This time 10 years ago I was at the European Championships in Dublin and witnessed Mo Farah collapsing after finishing second in the men's race. Here was one of the fittest men on the continent and he was in such distress that even after receiving medical treatment he couldn't make the medal ceremony.

As the runners filed in to the chutes after the finish line, the teenage Ciara Mageean among them, there was a special spent quality about many of them, a kind of delirious exhaustion you see in very few other sports.

It brought me back because I spent some of my own teenage years running cross-country. Jesus, when I think of Sundays plodding around the Demesne in Castlerea which turned into an absolute morass when it rained. Cattle were kept there so there was cowshit and ruts to cope with as well when you made your way around.

Two halting steps forward, a slip back, a stumble to the side, is my shoe after coming off there again? So much muck all over you it was hard to tell where the muck ended and the human began. Excuse me for a second. I've got to lie down. It must be that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Paul Hardcastle used to sing about at the time.

None of us, n-n-n-none of us received a hero's welcome. Maybe we deserved one.

Most weekends this winter a new generation of kids have been tasting the joys of cross-country. Some of them, like my two brothers who ran in All-Irelands, will have a knack for it. Others will be more like myself. But I hope that parents who're told that their son or daughter finished 45th or 53rd appreciate that this is a decent achievement. With the size of the fields in some of those races there might have been 45 or 53 runners behind them.

Even if your kid is one of the very last finishers, you should be proud of them too. Because just giving a cross country race a shot and finishing it shows the youngster has plenty of character. It's no joke out there on your own in the muck.

Of course there's a rare breed of people who actually revel in cross country. I remember seeing a teenager like that win an All-Ireland title in the Forest Park in Boyle the year I did the Leaving. Sonia O'Sullivan from Cobh Vocational School. Who turned out to be the all-time Toughest.

These days no-one is tougher than Fionnuala McCormack (who will always kind of be Fionnuala Britton to me in the way that men of my father's generation kept thinking of Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay and believed in the existence of the parallelogram.) That she's five-foot-two tall and weighs a shade under seven stone shows that in cross-country the only size that matters is that of your heart.

You know what McCormack did after winning by a distance last Sunday? She ran down the side of the course to cheer on her sister Una Britton who went on to finish in third place.

Phenomenal woman, that's her.


The Last Word

No sport has monopoly on entitled behaviour

In Nicky English’s excellent autobiography he tells the story of how, after defeat by Limerick in the 1995 Munster hurling championship, himself and Pat Fox went on the batter in Cashel and ended up having a drunken argument in the street as a few souls watched from a nearby chipper.

These days the lads in the chipper would probably have filmed the row on their phones and social media would have quickly made a mountain out of a molehill. This is the age we live in as the Limerick hurlers are discovering.

Anyone who thinks this is an improvement should ask themselves if they’d have been cool with every mistake they made as a young man being filmed and broadcast. Maybe you’re one of those people who has lived a life so blameless that 24-hour surveillance would be no bother to you. Well done.

Those who are neither saints nor hypocrites may be more ambivalent about the issue. Meanwhile, GAA people who crowed over misbehaviour by rugby players should reflect that no sport has a monopoly on ‘entitled behaviour’.

* * * * *

Eight years ago I went to the IABA elite championship finals at the National Stadium. After the three-medal haul at the Beijing Olympics, they seemed a major event and the light-heavyweight match between Joe Ward and Kenny Egan was hyped like a pro bout.

The finals remained a very big deal until the disastrous showing at the last Olympics and the shenanigans surrounding the departure of Billy Walsh seemed to put boxing in bad odour with media and public. This year’s championships seemed almost to pass under the radar on Friday of last week.

This may be as much an indictment of our own fickle nature as of the sport itself. Boxing has remained a reliable provider of international medals, even if this year’s world championships were the first without an Irish medallist since Beijing. But when March’s Olympic qualifying tournament in London arrives both Irish amateur boxing and IABA high performance director Bernard Dunne will be under pressure.

* * * * *

Those ‘FAI adopting reform package marks brave new era for Irish football’ takes haven’t worn well, have they? The revelation that, for legal reasons, the report by consultants KOSI will not just be kept from the public but from the relevant Oireachtas committee members shows the mind-boggling depth of dysfunction within the FAI.

Five months on from the supposedly ground-breaking AGM, the Association still hasn’t produced a set of accounts, the four new independent directors have not been appointed, two other reports have still to see the light of the day  and new FAI Council member Stuart Gilhooly says, “I have had one meeting in that period and I am none the wiser about what went on in the FAI than I was at the start.”

It’s a pity Franz Kafka is dead. He’d have made a great FAI leader.

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