Flutter of immortality made sweeter by the realisation of defeat's grim inevitability
In a good year the annual television sports awards celebrate those people who represent humanity at the apex of its physical and psychological prowess.
They are the champions who by their rare talent and exceptional force of will deliver achievements that touch the edge of human possibility in their field. Every generation produces practitioners across a spectrum of sports who push beyond that edge to establish new frontiers.
They set new records, new times, new statistical landmarks. They force everyone else to revise what we thought was possible; to erase the old boundaries and upgrade our self-imposed limitations.
A very large swathe of the global population is in thrall to their aura: their feats, their personalities and charisma. We adore them and respect them and even love them. But maybe, more than anything, we need them.
Beyond the sheer entertainment they provide, all those dramatics and heroics, perhaps we need them for the bulwark they maintain against our profoundest fear: the certainty of sickness and extinction. Their physical mastery, their moral courage, their sense of psychological omnipotence, may be at some subconscious level for us a source of comfort and hope.
If it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, then they offer the light of optimism and a spirit of rebellion against the grim inevitability that shadows our waking days.
For in the years of their virile prime they are impregnable. It is just an illusion, of course, temporary and passing; but it is a necessary illusion nonetheless. The gods of the sporting universe are mortal alright, but they are the mortals who come closest to capturing the illusion of human invincibility. They can -- however fleetingly -- conquer time, defy gravity, banish Shakespeare's "heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."
This Christmas, as every Christmas, RTE and the BBC paraded the best performers to be found in this small corner of the world. They aren't all destined to be remembered as greats of their trade, but they produced memorable moments in 2013 that will be recorded somewhere for posterity.
Amongst all the garlands and highlight reels, the shows have a ritual every year that changes the mood and pauses the superlatives. It is the roll call of the departed, the In Memoriam montage of faces and names, the last goodbye to those who once had walked this way.
Many are remembered with a still photograph, some are captured in action from old TV footage. The images are sometimes in black and white, sometimes in colour. In many of the photographs they are smiling. The filmed material depicts most of them at the height of their youthful endeavour.
Several names on the BBC this year were unfamiliar to me. But there was Reg Simpson anyway, cricketer with England and Nottinghamshire, frozen in a post-war black-and-white action photo: bat held high on the follow-through, the ball out of picture and safely despatched. Mr Simpson died in November, aged 93.
Christian Benitez, formerly of Ecuador and Birmingham City, dead at 27 from heart failure. Bill Foulkes, Ken Norton, Sir Henry Cecil and Brian Greenhoff. And Dave Thomas, a Welsh golfing star of the 1950s and '60s, pictured in the autumn of his years wearing a comfy golf sweater, a jolly smile and a reassuringly rubicund complexion.
The revered German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann; Cliff Morgan, young and dashingly handsome in this photograph; Olympic gold medal sailor Andrew Simpson, just 36; Dave Hickson, formerly of Everton and Liverpool FC; and Phill Nixon, darter, yeoman of the arrows, felled by time's arrow.
The BBC's Sports Personality of the Year ceremony was held at an indoor arena in Leeds. The lights went down and the audience of 12,000 fell silent as the montage passed before them. The rising singer-songwriter John Newman walked onstage and delivered a soulful version of his song Running over the images, the lyrics also resonating and contributing to the pathos. It was beautifully done. The lights came up, the crowd broke into sombre applause.
Until that moment it had been a showbiz night. They clapped loudly as the current stars of the sporting firmament were ushered into the spotlight. But this, as ever, was a reminder of what befalls us all -- even the titans, after their youth and competitive fire have dwindled. After the illusion falls to earth.
It is precisely this contrast that makes the moment so affecting: the invincibles of today side by side with yesterday's invincibles, those who long ago were stripped of their armour and returned to the frail condition of general mankind. Most of the great performers, even at their all-conquering zenith, need no reminding of the frailty that awaits them too. For with the best of them there comes an abiding humility about their work and their achievements. But some do need reminding, those deluded by the fame and money and glory. Either way, they are all out there, taking the fight to the enemy, holding back the tide with their naïve defiance until they in turn succumb.
We can appreciate such heroism all the more, says the novelist Julian Barnes, by knowing and accepting the reality that awaits us all. His book Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a surprisingly enjoyable meditation on the Grim Reaper and all his works. "Unless you are constantly aware of (death), you cannot begin to understand what life is about," writes Barnes. "Unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever, there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave."
AP McCoy is a leviathan of modern sport. And he is one who needs no reminding. He comes face to face with human frailty every day he takes a horse to a fence. Knowing this, and confronting it as he does, makes him even greater, a Zeus among the titans.
He came third in the BBC awards. RTE gave him the overall gong, Sports Person of the Year for 2013. On RTE they remembered, among others, Kevin Heffernan, Tony Grealish, Con Martin, Jimmy Smyth, Tommy McConville and Niall Donoghue. They tipped their hat also to dear old Paddy Downey, formerly of The Irish Times, and to those much-loved broadcasters, Seán óg ó Ceallacháin and Colm Murray.
Tommy Keane was the one that startled me. For some strange reason I hadn't heard of his passing. He died in December 2012, just 44. In the 1990/'91 academic year I lived in Galway. Myself and a friend regularly mooched along to Terryland Park that season, which also happened to be the season that Galway United won the FAI Cup. Keane stood out because he was so small, and busy and quick.
He'd scored in every round of the Cup until the final. The score was 0-0 in Lansdowne Road with five minutes to play. Keane broke onto a ball down the right and crossed it early. Johnny Glynn tucked it home at the near post.
Tommy Keane won't be on sport's virtual Mount Rushmore, along with McCoy and his like. But he had his season in the sun, his moment in time: what the English writer and former sports journalist Keith Dewhurst calls "this flutter of immortality".
They all have it, these strivers in sweat and chasers of history. They are mortal, in the end, but they leave something behind that endures: that flutter of immortality, that fleeting moment snatched from time that will remain permanently alive.