Tuesday 20 February 2018

Hold the back page: If it isn't fun then it isn't really sport

Eugene McGee:
Eugene McGee: "Is there any fun left in Gaelic football for players any more?"

Eamonn Sweeney

It was good to see Joe Brolly hitting out at the win-at-all-costs mentality he believes is taking the enjoyment out of the GAA. And also, though it didn't get as much notice, the unfailingly perceptive Eugene McGee making the same point when noting the worrying drop-out rate among young footballers in their late teens. "Is there any fun left in Gaelic football for players any more?" he asked.

Yet it's missing the point to think this problem is confined to either youngsters or the GAA. Because a tendency to think that sport is only authentic if it's grim and unpleasant has arisen generally over the last few years. I loved sport and PE when I was in secondary school but there are plenty of people out there who enjoyed neither. One guy once memorably described school sport to me as, "running around in the rain with some bollocks shouting at you."

Which, funnily enough, is almost a perfect description of RTE's new sports reality show, Ireland's Fittest Family. Almost, because the families involved were slithering through muck rather than running around in the rain and I would be loath to use the B word to describe coaches Davy Fitzgerald, Eddie O'Sullivan, Kenneth Egan and Nikki Symmons. A couple of them were acting the bollocks which is a different thing.

Fair play to the families involved, some of whom are indeed impressively fit. I hope they're enjoying themselves. But as television the problem IFF has is that it reinforces the old cliché of sport being a kind of war without shooting, as witnessed by the fact that too many of the coaches seem to be impersonating the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket. It's very hard to see how anyone would be inspired to take up sport by this farrago. Any sports sceptic would only be confirmed in their suspicion that there's an unhealthy combination of masochism and machismo at the root of the whole thing.

It's sad to see the coaching quartet, tremendously talented people who have achieved things of genuine value, attempt to become clichéd Reality TV 'personalities.' When Davy Fitz loses the rag in the All-Ireland final, it's understandable because big things are at stake. When he goes up to high doh over an utterly pointless TV contest, it just makes him look like a Panto dame.

But who can blame the programme-makers? It used to be religion which was associated with grimness and suffering in this country. Now it's sport. There's a school of newspaper sportswriting whose products read like a cross between a Hemingway short story about strangling an antelope and your man from Fifty Shades of Grey's weekend to-do list. There's an idea out there that, in the words of the American philosopher Stefani Germanotta, "if it isn't rough, it isn't fun".

It's easy to sentimentally agree with Joe Brolly that kids should have more fun playing sport. But it's not just children who are entitled to enjoy sport. Irish life is a grim thing at the moment for many people with recession, emigration and the knowledge that the country is run by people you wouldn't trust to mind your coat without going through the pockets. Sport should be a break from this, not just one more thing to be grim about.

The American essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of a fantastic book on horse racing called Blood Horses, derides Reality TV as the domain of "big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash and always knowing, always preaching. Constantly talking about 'goals'. Telling it like it is . . . a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights." I read that and thought it pretty much describes every Irish sporting documentary these days. Talking about goals, preaching and lifting weights. And not an ounce of humour to be seen anywhere.

Let's lighten up. Because if you can't find a bit of fun and enjoyment in sport, what's left?

Irish Independent

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