Thursday 22 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Katie Taylor's 18 titles are no match for Sonia's six

Team Ireland's Katie Taylor
Team Ireland's Katie Taylor

Michael O'Reilly won a European Games gold medal eight days ago. You know Michael O'Reilly, 21-year-old guy from Portlaoise, boxes at middleweight? I'm just mentioning this because maybe you missed it.

It's quite possible.

You see, even though they both won the same medal in the same sport at the same games, Katie Taylor got, at a rough guess, about 100 times more coverage than Michael O'Reilly last week. My problem isn't with the amount of stuff written about Katie Taylor - a gold medal at a major championships is no mean feat. My problem is the degree to which Michael O'Reilly was to a large extent excluded from the story, like a dissident excised from a photograph in the old Soviet Union.

It was almost as though there was a feeling that giving O'Reilly his due would in some way be detrimental to Taylor. You can argue that Taylor was winning her 18th major title while O'Reilly was winning his first. But that surely makes the youngster's victory more rather than less interesting.

There is also the fact that O'Reilly's gold medal was harder won. Pointing this out is not a denigration of women's boxing, it's merely noting that the men's and women's fight games are at different stages of development. Women's boxing was making its Olympic debut in 2012 and even then only three weight divisions were involved. Its exclusion prior to that had less to do with sexism than the fact that the first world championships only took place in 2001. Women's boxing is still feeling its way in the sporting arena. It is banned, for example, in Cuba, the most powerful amateur boxing nation in the world.

And before anyone rushes to assign me the male chauvinist bastard hashtag, I don't think that women's sport is intrinsically inferior to men's sport. An Olympic gold in gymnastics, athletics, swimming, rowing, canoeing and all the other sports that have a long history in the games is the same for women as it is for men. Serena Williams is not a lesser competitor than Novak Djokovic.

‘It was almost as though there was a feeling that giving O’Reilly his due would in some way be detrimental to Taylor.’
‘It was almost as though there was a feeling that giving O’Reilly his due would in some way be detrimental to Taylor.’

But all sports are not equal. It is harder to win a World Cup in soccer than it is to win an Olympic gold medal in water polo. And a woman who wins Olympic gold in athletics has achieved more than a man who tops the podium in judo or archery. It's the level of competition rather than the sex of the competitor which is the ultimate arbiter of sporting worth.

Katie Taylor is such an extraordinary performer that I have no doubt she would still dominate if the competition were tougher in her chosen sport. But much of the Katieolatry reminds me of George Bernard Shaw's definition of a patriot being someone who thinks their country is the best in the world because they happened to be born there. Our interest in women's boxing largely stems from the fact that the best performer in the sport comes from this country.

The idea that Katie Taylor is the finest female athlete in Irish history is getting bandied about more and more these days. Yet I still think that her 18 major titles don't count for as much as the six major titles won by Sonia O'Sullivan, perhaps the finest sporting performer of either sex to ever come from this country. Quantity of titles is not everything. For example, can you name the Olympic sports in which Claudia Pechstein, Isabell Werth, Valentina Vezzali, Marit Bjoergen, Elisabeta Lipa and Birgit Fischer competed during the last decade?

On the off-chance that you didn't get it, the answers are speed skating, dressage, fencing, cross country skiing, rowing and canoeing. Those magnificent women won 35 gold medals between them, yet it's unlikely that anyone would rank them above Tirunesh Dibaba and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who won a paltry three each. In sport, quality counts more than quantity and context is everything.

To be the second greatest female athlete in Irish history, which Katie Taylor probably is, remains a massive achievement. Yet why is it that denying her the top spot seems somehow churlish? Perhaps it's because of the media tendency to pile Pelion upon Ossa with each of her new victories. I saw it said last week that she is now 'the world's finest pound for pound boxer.' It may be superfluous to point out that the achievements of Floyd Mayweather, Wladimir Klitchschko, Roman Gonzalez and Gennady Golovkin are of an entirely different order of magnitude. Or maybe it's not.

For one thing, Taylor has not entered the professional ranks. On the other hand, she's lost little caste by not doing this, so uninspiring is the women's pro boxing game at the moment, the presence of the great Norwegian Cecelia Braekhus notwithstanding. You may draw your own conclusions from that.

I'm beginning to feel a bit like Anton Ego, the grumpy food critic from Ratatouille who turns up at Gusteau's restaurant and tells the waiter that he'd like some "perspective." But trying to put Katie Taylor's achievements into some kind of context isn't begrudgery. In fact, to be honest, it's some of the OTT praise whose sincerity I find questionable. Much of it has the trying-too-hard-to-impress flavour of a middle-aged businessman bestowing exorbitantly priced gifts on a young model.

One of the most interesting offshoots of the Katie Taylor story is the boom in girls' boxing, where Ireland has started to win big at international tournaments. You'd have read about the achievement of young Amy Broadhurst from Dundalk in winning a European junior featherweight title in this column three years ago. But it passed largely unremarked by those who have boiled down the remarkable success story of Irish amateur boxing to the achievements of one woman. In the past four years there have been European Championship golds for Joe Ward, Ray Moylette, Jason Quigley and John Joe Nevin which were also largely overlooked.

It's not just boxing which gets covered in this reductive manner. Who can ever forget the baroque lunacy of the way last year's Irish Six Nations campaign was portrayed as merely a series of farewell gigs for Brian O'Driscoll? It really was bizarre. Before every game players would be asked if they were going out to win this one for Drico, and even when they answered that no, that's not really how it works, the 'winning it for Drico' narrative rolled on. It wasn't enough that O'Driscoll was one of the finest rugby players of his generation, he had to be portrayed as a kind of cross between Superman, James Bond and Mother Teresa.

Sonia O'Sullivan in Marrakech in 1998
Sonia O'Sullivan in Marrakech in 1998

And how about the way that Kilkenny's victory over Tipperary in the All-Ireland final somehow got portrayed as being all about Henry Shefflin? Shefflin, like Taylor and O'Driscoll, has an unimpeachable claim to greatness but he had bugger all to do with Kilkenny's victory, coming off the subs' bench to play a total of 16 minutes in the two final games and not scoring at all. In fact his total haul for the championship was four points.

Yet in the aftermath of the game the cameras focused on Shefflin, peripheral though he'd been to the real business at hand. Again the whole hype had a forced and insincere feeling about it. As indeed do all those articles saying that Rory McIlroy is better than Tiger Woods because he will win more Majors. It makes more sense to hang around and see if this happens than to give McIlroy credit for stuff he hasn't done yet. Right now he's won four, same as Ray Floyd and Ernie Els. And all those 'he'll win as many as he wants' merchants may want to take cognisance of a young Texan named Jordan Spieth who'll have something to say about that.

Shefflin and McIlroy happen to be two of my favourite sportsmen. I greatly admire Taylor and O'Driscoll too. Yet a lot of the hype reminds me of Eamon Dunphy's old jibe that a lot of Irish sports journalists were "fans with typewriters". I always thought myself that you could be worse things: a sportswriter without a touch of the fan about him will write pretty bloodless stuff. And indeed Dunphy himself is usually at his best when he displays the partisanship and enthusiasm of the fan. I never minded the fans with typewriters.

The cheerleaders with computers are another thing altogether.

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