Friday 17 August 2018

Sinead Kissane: Booing is self-serving but it might have served a purpose

The sport needed a colosseum-style disapproval to show it still has a way to go in fight against doping

Justin Gatlin
Justin Gatlin
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

During a break in the track and field events at the World Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday night the lowest and most reliable form of sports entertainment was let loose.

Hello 1990s America as the Kiss Cam did its thing of creeping up on unsuspecting couples on the big screen to force them into a show to give everyone else a cheap thrill. You know how it goes - couples obligingly comply with a smooch, onlookers roar their approval and everyone's a winner babe.

If they got their way, the rulers of these championships would have wanted a version of Kiss Cam all the time. They took Shakespeare's 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players' quote and recalibrated it to 'These Worlds are our stage and, dude, you gotta play your part'. I've never been at a major sports event which has made crowd 'interaction' a necessity rather than a novelty more so than when I was at these championships on Thursday evening.

The words 'Clap, Clap, Clap' regularly scrolled across the screen in case you had a notion of doing otherwise. Gentle reminders were deemed over-rated with stadium announcers relentlessly urging the crowd for hell-for-leather support, to Make Some Noise and to show the world watching that we're all one happy, clappy family.

This is a sport, we're constantly told, which is dying on its feet because of credibility issues yet each day thousands of people voted with their feet at the Olympic Stadium. I sat in the stand but I probably didn't need the sight of that former British sweetheart Linford Christie walking by reminding me of the past to make me wonder what I was really doing here.

Are we all pawns, complicit in our own small way of paying money to see a sport which we know is dodgy as f*** thanks to some? A sport which can be so loaded with navel-gazing from the cheerleading by the BBC to the cherry-picking by Mo Farah's minders of which journalists are allowed within his exclusion zone for fear he's faced with anything other than 'Clap, Clap, Clap'.

Yesterday morning I got an email from British Athletics (like every paying customer presumably) asking to fill out a survey. There were 15 answers to choose from for a question about why I decided to go to the championships. Top of the list of answers were 'Big Event Atmosphere' and 'Looking for a great day out'. Further down was 'I am an athletics fan'. Christ, little else can bring about some sort of existential crisis than a simple box-ticking exercise.

But it also made things clearer. I still am an athletics fan. I can't turn it off or turn away. And that's why a part of me was glad to hear the booing last Saturday night on TV. When Justin Gatlin won the 100m final the immediate moments afterwards were like that hoary announcement in 'The X-Factor' to say the contest would be decided by the public vote as a large number of the crowd in the stadium began to boo. This show of anger was not appreciated by everyone. Gatlin's father was quoted as saying: "The fans' booing is disrespectful to the sport. The sport has always been here and is going to be here after he leaves."

Disrespectful to the sport? I would have thought testing positive for testosterone and being banned for four years (having already served a one-year suspension for testing positive for a medication he had been using since childhood, we're told) would have ticked that particular box as well as stuff like fooling the public and cheating clean athletes out of money and medals.

I'm not a fan of the base sporting lexicon of booing which, most of the time, is really borne out of self-interest. The booing of Mayo's Andy Moran by some Roscommon supporters during their recent All-Ireland SFC quarter-final, apparently because he's from Ballaghaderreen, resulted in a statement from Roscommon asking them to refrain from it in future.

Last April, Munster out-half Ian Keatley spoke about the effect on him when some Munster fans booed him in a Champions Cup game two years ago. "The worst thing was talking to mom on the phone a day or two later, she broke down crying. I said, 'Look mom, it's fine, these things happen'," Keatley said in an interview with Marie Crowe in the Sunday Independent. "It's so personal. People will tell you it's alright; deep down as a player you know yourself it's not".

The booing of Gatlin is in another spectrum because of the broader issues. Athletics has long crossed from being just a sport to being a show and it needed the effect of colosseum-style crowd disapproval to reveal its fault-lines.

The sport got what it deserved for allowing an athlete who served two doping suspensions to continue competing. It showed up other split ends like the folly of playing the player, not the ball, and making one athlete the fall-guy for every competitor who's competed in the championships after a ban and all those we'll never know about.

The booing also highlighted the absolute folly of Seb Coe's claim before the championships that doping wasn't the sport's biggest challenge. And the booing might finally make the good folk at the BBC review the way they present storylines to the public because the integrity of the sport extends to the way they cover it.

The reaction to Gatlin's win wasn't as sensational as the action but it could have a greater impact. Fans booing is self-serving but, this time, it might just have served the sport of athletics.

Irish Independent

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