Thursday 20 June 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'Irish sports fans are hypocrites - and reaction to Katie Taylor's win is the latest example'

1 June 2019; Katie Taylor, right, and Delfine Persoon during their Undisputed Female World Lightweight Championship fight at Madison Square Garden in New York, USA. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
1 June 2019; Katie Taylor, right, and Delfine Persoon during their Undisputed Female World Lightweight Championship fight at Madison Square Garden in New York, USA. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

In the dying seconds of the 2012 Olympic women's lightweight boxing final, the late Jimmy Magee was struggling to stay seated at ringside in London.

Katie Taylor was ducking and diving, bobbing and weaving, holding and basically clinging on, yet the commentator was busy celebrating.

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"That gold medal is on its way to Bray," he chimed, despite the evidence.

Back in Wicklow, a field was filled in front of a big screen and the closing bell was greeted with drinks flung skywards so hands could be freed to punch the air. All this would have seemed strange and presumptuous, had it not been boxing. Instead though, it didn't matter that many neutral observers thought she'd just been beaten by Sofya Ochigava.

It didn't even matter that at best, such a close fight should cause a nervous moment before the referee raised an arm.

This sport is often about the right result.

The saying in boxing circles long before Taylor had laced a glove was that if your victory isn't beneficial to those upstairs, your opponent better be carried out of the ring. This isn't some brazen accusation either, as there's been plenty of proven corruption in the sport to back it up. The problem, however, is that we pick and choose when a loaded dice does and doesn't outrage us.

Read more: 'Someone should tell him to Stepaside' - The best reaction after Minister Shane Ross hijacks Katie Taylor's homecoming

In October 2012, the Russian was still seething. Rightly so. With the news Taylor was staying amateur, Ochigava commented, "You're about to witness the fall of your golden girl and she won't have daddy to hold her hand". If it seemed bitter, it also made sense, yet the IABA and others were quick to call her out. Bad loser, we said. The reality was we are worse winners.

Where would gold have brought Ochigava in life, had it not been for that right result? We know where it brought Taylor, as late last year her management team said she wouldn't get out of bed for the €100,000 offered by Delfine Persoon. And Saturday night in New York, we again saw what her status has made her. Once a golden girl, it seems she's become Teflon, so valuable that she has almost become too big to fail.

According to most in the know, Katie Taylor lost her unification bout everywhere other than on the scorecards. Some had her down by two rounds; others had it as a three-round deficit. In a 10-round bout, that's a beating.

It's true that there can be an overreaction to actually seeing someone stand up to her for the duration and the instant knee-jerk is therefore to side with the underdog for their surprise courage and quality, but even those on Taylor's side suggested no more than a draw.

As she looked embarrassed being given the fourth of her division's belts, those who love the sport were licking their wounds.

This isn't Taylor's fault, as she has no control over what the judges decide, but it still made for awkward viewing. Sky Sports had Johnny Nelson call her "a little lucky", which in this sphere is a by-word for the obvious. Tony Bellew agreed. Carl Froch said straight out that the Belgian woman had "been robbed".

It makes it hard not to be cynical but much like Ochigava before her, the general Irish attitude is that Persoon can return to her job with the Federal Police, get out of our minds and our way, and be forgotten about. We won so we can celebrate and, as if a hangover from the Celtic Tiger mentality, when we succeed, the end justifies all means.

The reaction to this victory forced us to hold up a mirror. And man are we ugly.

***

When Mo Farah's story raises serious questions, we stare and we probe. When those closer to home put in efforts that cause no more than equally fair questions, and for journalists to be equally fair on everyone regardless of their passport, it's a different story.

When Fionnuala Britton is run off the podium by Africans paid to be Turkish in European Championships, it's a disgrace. When we pay CJ Stander to share our nationality, he's a hero.

When Neil Back defines a Heineken Cup final, he is national enemy number one. When Alan Quinlan plays the referee in another showpiece showdown, it is clever gamesmanship.

When Declan Rice decides to make an adult decision and decides that he feels English, he's a turncoat. When James McClean makes a similar call he's a martyr for our cause.

When Michael Conlan has his dream stolen by judges with dodgy motives, it's time for the Liveline attitude to become part of all and every conversation. Yet when Katie Taylor's win is questionable, then suddenly it could have gone either way and that's just the way of things.

In Ireland, we don't live in a democracy. We live in a hypocrisy.

The late, great George Carlin had a wonderful line about linking ourselves to the achievements of others.

"Pride should be reserved for something you obtain on your own," he quipped, "not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn't a skill, it's a f**king genetic accident. You wouldn't say I'm proud to be 5'11; I'm proud to have a predisposition for colon cancer."

Bad enough, therefore, that we align ourselves to others' highlights based on nationality, worse that we grin when those moments come with an asterisk.

And make no mistake, Taylor's does. No matter how much we pretend this was a glorious way to complete that rare feat of unifying a division, deep down we know it feels wrong.

At the Olympics in 2016 - the same Games where plenty bemoaned Taylor's loss in the first round and put it down to bad judging - many in the British press were too busy celebrating their victories when their job was to question how those victories took place. One member of their press pack, referencing Paul Kimmage and David Walsh and their work across the 2000s, talked about the inquisitive nature of Irish people and that need to hold people to account.

They meant it as a compliment.

"Maybe so," I told them. "This is the easy part though. The real test is when it's our own."

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