Sunday 22 September 2019

Comment: Teletubbies for sports fans - RTÉ's Greatest Sporting Moment an infantile regression to supposedly happier times

 

'Ronnie Delany's Olympic gold medal in '56, arguably the greatest sporting achievement ever by an Irishman, doesn't exist in this fairytale.'
'Ronnie Delany's Olympic gold medal in '56, arguably the greatest sporting achievement ever by an Irishman, doesn't exist in this fairytale.'

Tommy Conlon

It is seemingly a human necessity to return incessantly to the past, and find some comfort there amid the sea of troubles that comes with living in the present.

But if you spend too much time wandering around memory lane, you will soon enough find yourself in a cul-de-sac. Nostalgia may be a pleasant escape but it is not a solution: the here and now will be waiting for you with a bucket of cold water once your blissful reverie is over.

Worse still, these sentimental picnics can easily deceive you into thinking that yesterday will always be better than today. Maybe this is another basic human trait, the need to put some distance on our days in order to appreciate them. But if the stuff of living needs the benediction of time before being cherished, it seems like a bit of a waste all round. Ideally we are supposed to appreciate it while it's happening, not waiting for it to glow in our memory years later.

Anyway, we are suckers for the sentimental journey with all its cheap seductions and romantic aversions to reality. The truth back then is always an early casualty of these sunlit jaunts. We remember the daisies but not the pismires, the day at the seaside but not the wretched drive home.

One is nostalgia, the other is history. RTE's major current production from its sports department is heavy on the former and light on the latter. Ireland's Greatest Sporting Moment is one enormous heap of self-indulgence and self-congratulation. It is Enid Blyton on steroids, Teletubbies for sports fans, an infantile regression to supposedly happier and simpler times. It is a big-budget folly of back-slapping and cheerleading, a children's birthday party of treats and sweets dressed up in tricolours and patriotic emotion.

To sustain the fantasy, reality must not intrude. So the selective editing of anything unpleasant begins with the premise itself. Obviously, it is not Ireland's greatest sporting moment that is being "celebrated" but the national broadcaster's.

RTE's television life began in late 1961 so, for the purposes of this exercise, the history of Irish sport only begins in this decade. The previous half-century and more has been erased. Ronnie Delany's Olympic gold medal in '56, arguably the greatest sporting achievement ever by an Irishman, doesn't exist in this fairytale. It can't be included if RTE wasn't there to cover it. The back-slapping and cheerleading is first and foremost for itself.

The series is mounted over five one-hour episodes covering 1962-2012. It is therefore not so much a stroll down memory lane as a marathon excursion into its comforting backwaters. Inevitably with such an extravagant wallow, complacent myths are perpetuated at every turn. The most abiding of these is our self-designation as a great sporting nation.

And yet, so few are our achievements on the world stage that virtually all the highlights selected for inclusion are old hat by now. We have seen them all before, over and over and over. They've been done to death, talked to death, drank to death. The tapes are in danger of exhaustion from over-exposure. Houghton, Sonia, Treacy, McGuigan, Carruth, Roche and Dawn Run; the tries, the goals, the homecomings. Seen it once, seen it a thousand times.

This production is old wine in new bottles. It is a festival of self-congratulation that reflects the delusions about our wider sporting culture. Everything from its governance to its infrastructure to its education policy has been second rate from the founding of the state. In reality it is a story of neglect and mediocrity, compounded by the self-satisfied myths which TV shows like this only serve to perpetuate.

Ireland has won 31 Olympic medals over 21 summer Olympiads. A common explanation for this paltry return is the dominance of Gaelic games.

New Zealand has a population of 4.7 million. The dominant sport there is rugby union. New Zealand has won 117 Olympic medals across 23 summer Olympiads, including 46 gold. They won 18 medals alone at the Rio games in 2016; Ireland won two. All this while the All Blacks have continued to set the standard in world rugby for most of a century, and whilst maintaining a competitive international cricket team too.

Let's remind ourselves of another familiar comparator country. Denmark has a population of 5.7 million. Its tally of Olympic medals? 194. In passing, their national football team managed to win the European Championships in 1992.

Measured against these facts and stats, Ireland's total is borderline embarrassing. Measured against a comparable TV show in Denmark or New Zealand, Ireland's Greatest Sporting Moment becomes a risible indulgence. It is one thing to look back over a century of outstanding international achievements, as Denmark and New Zealand would be entitled to do, but quite another to celebrate Ireland's thin gruel like it is a royal banquet of greatness. For far too long there has been far too little to celebrate.

After it is finished its prolonged waltz with nostalgia, RTE might consider taking the hard road. It might tell the story of those sportsmen and women who, in aspiring towards excellence, were faced by economic impoverishment, institutional ignorance, and usually exile too. The first thing most of them did was to get the hell out of Ireland.

You wouldn't know it from this show, but for every good day, back in the day, there was a thousand bad ones. They are buried somewhere on memory lane too.

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