Monday 22 January 2018

Men the losers in fitness fight

Elite athletes lead a field of over 37,000 in the Women's Mini Marathon earlier this month. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Elite athletes lead a field of over 37,000 in the Women's Mini Marathon earlier this month. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Eamonn Sweeney

Liberty Insurance's new Wise Up survey concerning sporting participation among women in Ireland shows that there's plenty to be concerned about on this subject. A mere 55 per cent of women are physically active in comparison with a massive 45 per cent of men.

Hang on. Let me read that again. Irish women are 10 per cent ahead of Irish men in the physical activity stakes.

There I was all revved up to write one of those plaintive pieces wondering how we can get more women involved in sport and it turns out it's not women who have the biggest problem here.

The survey does reveal that women are only half as likely as men to be involved in team sports. But as it also reveals that only a meagre seven per cent of the population take part in team sports, this doesn't strike me as a particularly major problem, especially given that almost all participation in team sport ceases by the time people are in their mid-30s. And it's after that when exercise becomes even more important. As the running guru Bruce Tulloh puts it, "It is a good thing to be an athlete at 40, but it is essential at 70."

Pundits addressing the question of female participation in sport usually end up sounding like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady when he wonders, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" But maybe that question should be reversed. Perhaps the female model of sporting participation with, as the Liberty Survey informs us, a greater emphasis on group exercise activities, swimming, running and cycling than team sports is a more sustainable one. These are, after all, pursuits which can be continued for many years in a way that Gaelic football, rugby and soccer, largely eschewed by women the survey tells us, cannot be.

Surveys like this are important because they lead us out of the prison of anecdote and the fog of received opinion. The popular cliché is that women are less physically active than men and that this stems among other things from a lack of interest in competitive sport at a young age. Hence the worry about the fact that attendances at women's sporting events are paltry compared to those at men's sporting events. Conventional wisdom says this means young men have far more popular and visible role models than women and are thus more likely to be inspired into sporting activity.

Well, given these figures, this appears to be nonsense. And while it would be nice to see bigger crowds at women's sporting events, to properly honour the efforts of the participants for one thing, the lack of numbers at these games doesn't seem to be doing women any great harm. Or, more pertinently, the enormous crowds at men's big matches doesn't seem to be having any great knock-on effect.

This isn't the first survey to show that much of what we thought we knew about sport is wrong. Two years ago the ESRI published the most comprehensive report ever on sporting participation here which showed that the majority of Irish people's sporting participation occurs in a non-competitive individual context, something which probably indicates that future investment should be skewed in this direction instead of being pumped into team sports.

In fact, perhaps the greater involvement of young men in team sport is a weakness as much as a strength. Maybe men lag behind women in the physical activity stakes because having spent so much time when younger in the intensely competitive and regimented world of team sport, they find anything else to be a huge let-down. As Rabbit Angstrom, the titular character of John Updike's great tetralogy, says, "After you've been first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate." Rabbit, the high school basketball star who never recaptures the thrill of those days and declines into cynicism before being carried off by a heart attack, is the very embodiment of a largely if not uniquely male problem. Too many of us end up thinking that if it's not competitive it's not sport so why bother?

Yet you don't find as many people talking about the problem of male sporting participation in Ireland. Perhaps this has something to do with the political correctness of the age where male problems are viewed to be the fault of the men themselves whereas female problems are seen as being society's fault. Hence all those articles worrying about girls doing worse in science subjects at school than boys even though they do better everywhere else. Flip that one over and it seems pretty obvious which sex has more to worry about there.

But really this isn't a male problem or a female problem. It's a people problem. And the figure in the survey which shows that 50 per cent of the population do no exercise at all is pretty shocking. I'm no poster boy for physical excellence myself, my abs are more dartboard than washboard and it's unlikely that I'll ever be criticised for setting impossible standards of skinniness for young male models to follow. But I still get out on the road four days a week and run a few miles each time.

Full disclosure. In my 30s I was one of the inactive 50 per cent, having once been a sports-mad teenager. And all I can say about exercise, for anyone who's not doing it, is that you would not believe the physical and mental, particularly the mental, benefits. And also that I had 101 excuses for not making an effort but that, like almost everyone in that 50 per cent, it all boiled down to simple laziness, a condition which affects both sexes.

This survey is a valuable addition to the national sporting conversation. It has, for example, a very interesting suggestion that adults pledge to bring their children to at least one women's sporting event this year, something which, as the father of three daughters, I'll be bearing in mind.

And yet I wonder if there is a difference in the way the sexes experience sport. My eldest daughter is sporty, she brought back a trophy from the Cork City Sports primary schools athletics meeting last week, she competes in swimming galas and in Sciath na Scoil Gaelic football. Yet she doesn't have anything like the same interest in watching or reading about sport that I did at her age. It could be that the whole spectating and obsessing thing is to a certain degree more of a male preoccupation. Or, which is eminently likely, that this could be just one more piece of gender stereotyping which will be disproved by research.

Yet it does seem that, particularly as they get older, men watch and women do. In which case it's women who are on the right track. Commenting on the survey, Clare Balding said that, "There remains a gap between how boys and girls are brought up in sport." She's right of course but maybe the gap needs to be closed from both sides.

If you trail 55-45, you're losing no matter what the game is.


Bang louder when sports stars crash

They mightn't have been the three greatest sportsmen of their day, though they were pretty good, but I had a grá for them all the same.

I remember seeing Kenny Sansom making his debut for England at left-back against Wales on the old Sportsnight programme in 1979. It was a humdrum 0-0 draw at Wembley but they couldn't find enough superlatives to describe the performance of the Crystal Palace 20-year-old.

There was something special about that Palace team. Coached by Terry Venables, they were described everywhere as the Team of the '80s. It was like the second coming of the Busby Babes. And even though Vince Hilaire, Jerry Murphy, Peter Nicholas, Dave Swindlehurst et al ultimately only flattered to deceive, Sansom went on to become the finest left-back in the First Division and one of the best in the world after joining Arsenal. He was also a local hero around his native Camberwell which was where I lived after moving to London in the late '80s.

I watched a lot of cricket in those years and one of the players who excited me most was Chris Lewis. Lewis was predicted to become as fine an all-rounder as Ian Botham; in fact Derek Pringle described him as English cricket's finest athlete since the Edwardian hero CB Fry. The things which made the English cricket media suspect him, the flashiness and attitude, were the things which appealed to me. He seemed more like a West Indian cricketer, maybe because he'd been born in Guyana before moving to London as a kid.

Even if he never fulfilled his potential, in 1991 when he was taking on the great West Indies team at Edgbaston, taking six wickets in the first innings and hammering a rapid-fire 65, and 1992 when his bowling played a big part in getting England to the World Cup final against Pakistan, there was no-one like Chris Lewis.

Chelsea were far from the mighty force they are today in those years but they remained the biggest team in South London where I lived so I went to Stamford Bridge quite a bit. And I've seldom seen a player worshipped to the extent that Kerry Dixon was by the Chelsea fans. He wasn't just one of the best strikers around, finishing joint top scorer in the top flight in 1984-1985, he was a player who seemed emotionally invested in the fortunes of his team.

Last week Kenny Sansom was photographed passed out drunk in a South London park and talked to a newspaper about sleeping rough and feeling suicidal. Chris Lewis got out of jail having served six years for cocaine smuggling. And Kerry Dixon is on trial for allegedly assaulting a man in a pub.

It's all immensely sad. These problems aren't unique to sports stars but there does seem to be something particularly poignant about a sportsman falling on hard times. It may be the contrast between the adulation they once enjoyed and their current situation or it may be the fact that they once seemed so utterly in control of their destiny. It may even be that we feel a slight guilt at seeing someone who gave us so much pleasure suffering without us being able to do anything.

Sometimes it seems a pity they couldn't have stayed out on those pitches forever.


Nothing glorified about this con job

In the interests of scientific research, I removed some ice cubes from the refrigerator 20 minutes ago and placed them in the sink. And I can now report that watching them melt was, in fact, more exciting than watching the Ireland-England match at the Aviva. Way more exciting.

Has there ever been a more dispiriting sporting fixture played in this country? From beginning to end the whole thing had an air of futility Samuel Beckett would have been pleased to create. ITV apologised to their viewers for broadcasting the wretched thing and Paul Scholes described it as "a waste of an afternoon," but it was perhaps the ever excellent satirical website Waterford Whispers which best captured the flavour of the occasion with its story, 'Aviva staff attempt to wake fans following Ireland-England clash'.

It was the kind of game which sometimes gets described as a "glorified training spin," except there was nothing glorified about it. Both sets of players displayed all the interest of your teenage daughter when asked to look at this fantastic song from your younger days on YouTube. Anyone who paid into it must surely feel that they'd been the victims of an extremely clever con-trick. There are Nigerian email scams that give better value for money.

Even the fans got in on the act, managing to achieve the difficult feat of making matters worse by booing the English national anthem and then Raheem Sterling. After all the caterwauling about the possible misbehaviour of visiting supporters and the fear that they might sing songs offensive to our delicate sensibilities, it was our mob who let themselves down. The booing of Sterling obeyed the law which states that these things tend to be carried out with a bit of extra gusto if the player is black.

Of course none of this matters a jot compared with last night's result. Though saying that, I'm reminded of the memorable exchange in the Pixar movie Ratatouille between Remy the gastronomically inclined rat and his father. Chided by Remy for stealing food, his dad replies, "It's not stealing if no-one wants it." "If no-one wants it then why are we stealing it?"

If last Sunday's game didn't matter, why were we playing it?

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