Thursday 12 December 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Real heroes for real people

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Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Let's be honest. Most of us expected our British neighbours to greet Olympic success with the kind of brainless jingoism which has been their traditional response to national victory. Instead, something far more interesting happened.

It was as though a large segment of the population were seeing, really seeing, sport for the first time and discovering that they really liked it. Cycling, rowing, gymnastics and showjumping were producing new national heroes who couldn't have been more different from the people who normally made the front pages of the papers over there.

The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the awful closing ceremony came about because there was such a stark contrast between the Olympians and the denizens of Simon Cowell World who emerged, like a particularly virulent troupe of zombies from The Walking Dead, to reclaim the stage. The British public had learned something which I suspect most Irish people have known for some time. Sport is much more than a merely ornamental feature of society, it is the repository of our most cherished values, of what really matters.

Sport gives us public figures we can believe in, decent role models for our kids, people who can inspire us in our daily lives. And nothing else is doing that at the moment.

Just look around you. Once upon a time a celebrity was someone who'd become famous for being very good at something. Now a celebrity tends to mean someone who's graduated from some wretched reality show, shows which have plumbed the depths to such an extent that the original series of Big Brother looks like The Ascent of Man by comparison. Your Fade Street, your Tallafornia and The Only Way Is Essex and Dublin Housewives feature nonentities who've culled their tantrums and quirks from earlier shows of the same genre.

The media is in thrall to those unfortunates, no one more so than RTE who even managed to ruin the once-promising Celebrity Bainisteoir by importing a slew of them. RTE's own celebrities aren't much better, a gaggle of overpaid divas who trouser silly money for being able to read the autocue and walk across the studio without knocking over the scenery before interviewing either emissaries from Reality TV or other RTE people they met that morning in the canteen.

Pop music, once a thrilling realm where talented non-conformists held sway, presents us with the dispiriting spectacle of clueless kids lining up for the approbation of cynical schlock salesmen like Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh, hoping to win through on the back of family misfortune or sheer sycophantic ingratiation. It's like watching an interview for jobs in the bank with a Mariah Carey soundtrack.

So what's really worthy of our respect? The Church, headed by a chancer who sees no problem with the fact he once swore sexual abuse victims to silence? Politics, where careerists vote themselves huge pensions, seek out lucrative corporate sinecures when they retire and break every promise they've ever made while forcing ordinary people to pay for their mistakes? At one stage we were exhorted to worship the big beasts of the business world who were constantly complaining that they weren't appreciated. Turns out they were the worst of all.

It's no coincidence that in the past few days Pat Kenny and Pat Rabbitte have both been in the papers bemoaning their lot. The self-pitying pair are partners in the rottenness which reduces so many of us to utter despair about the way things are going.

What is left to us is sport. In place of Pat Rabbitte, Pat Kenny, Seánie FitzPatrick and Craig Doyle, it gives us Katie Taylor, the Kilkenny hurlers, the Donegal footballers and Richard Dunne. In sport, you don't become a celebrity just by declaring that you're one; it takes real talent and the dedication to put in years of hard work away from the limelight. Sport is the great meritocracy.

Pat Kenny whinged last week that he wished he'd gone and tried his luck in England years ago. I wish he had too. But he didn't. Because he didn't have the balls. Compare him with someone like Seamus Coleman who last week signed a five-and-a-half-year contract with Everton. It's quite something for a young lad to come from a little place like Killybegs and carve out a career in the Premier League when he's in competition with footballers from all over the world. But this kind of thing happens all the time. Shay Given did it, Roy Keane did it and now the likes of Coleman, Shane Long, James McClean and Joey O'Brien are following in their footsteps. Now that's something to be proud of.

The great thing about sport is that, by and large, you get what you deserve. You don't become a star in your sport because Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh select you. You become one because you are faster, more skilful, stronger or more determined than the opposition. The ball going over the line or between the posts, the finishing line or the end of the pool being reached first; these are things which cannot be faked. The viewers can't vote you in as All-Ireland champions.

Sport even has a kind of moral authority that the Church lacks. Because what sport shows us is that if you work hard and give it your best shot, rewards will be forthcoming. It may take time and you might need to be patient but in the end you'll get payback for your effort. But there are no shortcuts. This strikes me as a much better lesson for kids than teaching them that you can make it to the top by taking your clothes off on camera, bursting into tears over your mother's ingrown toenail or abasing yourself at the shrine of Bill Cullen.

Remember those developers and their constant whingeing that Irish people didn't fully appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit? Irish sports stars, by and large, don't display this kind of egotism. Whether it's Brian Cody giving the impression in the aftermath of Kilkenny's latest triumph that he's already thinking of the next game, Katie Taylor giving all the credit to the man above or Brian O'Driscoll coming across as a happy suburban husband who just coincidentally happens to be one of the greatest rugby players of all-time, there's a nice modesty about our best and brightest in the field of sport.

Sport trumps politics too. For most of this state's existence, small

rural communities have been virtually abandoned by the state, condemned to a life of struggle and stasis punctuated by bouts of mass emigration. The political establishment is once more giving the impression that it doesn't think these places are particularly viable. The GAA, on the other hand, has given one never-ending vote of confidence to Rural Ireland, seen it as a place where poetry can be created and history made. When people say, 'if it wasn't for the GAA there'd be nothing round here,' it's a statement of fact rather than a piece of exaggeration.

And as the tumbleweeds blow once more down the streets of villages and towns whose young people are heading abroad in search of work, the GAA will go on insisting that these small communities can punch above their weight if everyone works together.

Sport is also the best form of popular entertainment we have. While TV gives us lads with unconvincing accents shooting each other or people tearing strips off each other in the latest headache-inducing soap opera bitchfest, sport makes the spirit soar because it shows people getting the best out of themselves. It celebrates brilliance rather than bitterness, guts instead of guns.

Sport shows us at our best, it shows what can be achieved through hard work and self-belief. And we need to be shown that right now, when making your way in Austerity Ireland can seem to require all the inner reserves a person and their family can muster. It's a beacon of light in a dark time. It gives us something to aspire to and marvel at rather than despair about. Sport will be the best thing about Ireland in 2013, just as it was in 2012. In the words of the great American Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, "the sports pages record man's accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man's failures."

Sport is serious. The other stuff is just a lot of silly games.

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