Sunday 22 April 2018

United by our sporting creed

Eamonn Sweeney

The great thing about the Irish Olympic team is that it looks like Ireland. The real Ireland, the complicated one we live in rather than some idealised official version.

Official Ireland can be a pretty restrictive place. Its representative body, after all, is a thing called the Dáil which can leave you feeling somewhat disenfranchised unless you happen to be a teacher, a solicitor or at the very least a man.

Olympic Ireland, on the other hand, is a bit more inclusive. Our team for London will include a member of the Travelling community, boxer John Joe Nevin and a Latvian immigrant, rower Sanita Puspure. There will be representatives of the Irish diaspora from England (gymnast Kieran Behan), America (pole vaulter Tori Pena) and Africa (runner Alistair Cragg). We will have competitors from North of the border from both the Catholic communities (boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan) and Protestant communities (canoeist Hannah Craig and cyclist Martyn Irvine). There's a man from the Gaeltacht (athlete Ciarán ó Lionáird of Muskerry). Men and women will be represented in roughly equal numbers.

Even the nation's current sporting sweetheart, Katie Taylor, doesn't fit comfortably with traditional notions of Irishness. Not only is her father Pete an Englishman, but she is a born-again Christian, a member of a fine community too often derided by the supposed liberals among us, a young woman who proudly says, "The bible is my sports psychology manual. God is my psychologist."

The Olympic team doesn't just represent all kinds of Irish people, it, just as importantly, reflects the wide variety of sporting endeavour on this island. Belfast's Lisa Kearney's achievement in becoming the first ever Irish woman judo player to qualify wasn't just a personal milestone, it also makes her the representative of that great hidden giant of Irish sports, martial arts. You'd imagine that the thousands of kids studying for various colours of belts in many different styles will be thrilled to see an Irish Olympian taking to the mat.

Similarly, it's terrific to see Donegal's Chloe Magee qualifying for her second Olympics in that other great parish hall standby, badminton, another sport whose media profile contrasts greatly with its player numbers. Cycling, gymnastics, rowing and canoeing are also disciplines where volunteers work steadily away all year all around the country with little publicity. Come Olympic time they have their place in the sun. Maybe it will mean someone coming up to them in the street and saying, "I was watching your sport on the telly, I never knew it was so exciting. Fair play to you.'

The Olympics cut across all kinds of barriers, not least those of class. It's fair to say that boxing, for example, largely draws its stars from different social strata than do three-day eventing and sailing. But our Olympians in those sports will all be competing under the same flag.

What unites them is more important than what divides them -- a record of exemplary athletic achievement. Because the scramble for final Olympic places underlined just how tough it can be to make the Games. To qualify, you've got to come through international competition, defeating competitors from bigger countries who in many cases are better funded.

Olympic qualification is often the pinnacle of a whole career dedicated to excellence, something which might profitably be borne in mind by the intellectuals who'll be talking to Joe in a few weeks' time to complain that the Chinese are doing far better than our lot over in London.

The Olympic team is a fine reflection of who we are as a sporting nation. Even if there isn't any hurling in the games, for example, we've still got a former Kilkenny under 21, Darren O'Neill, in the boxing and Joanne Cuddihy, daughter of Cats team doctor Bill, in the 400m. And looking at the make-up of our squad, which at the moment comprises 53 competitors in a 14 different sports, set me to thinking about just how integral sport is to life in this country, how to a certain extent it is life in this country.

I live in a small rural community and if someone asked me about local sport my first response would be to say that it's GAA country and leave it at that. But I can look out the front window and see the local rowing club taking their boats out on the water and a horde of canoeists paddling across Castletownshend harbour. A walk up the road will bring me into contact with joggers and variegated flocks of cyclists enduring their own personal Tour de France.

Tip into town and you'll meet guys worrying about what this morning's golf game says about their handicap and rugby players still pondering the might-have-beens of their narrow defeat in the Munster Junior Cup final.

A mile out the road there's a soccer pitch and an athletic track next door to it, both constantly in use and scenes of some spectacular matches and races. There are world-class rowers from Skibbereen sculling down the Ilen River, in the sports centre there are kids taking their first tumbles in gymnastics and learning the intricacies of table tennis. In the National Schools, they're entering Sciath Na Scoile competitions, bidding to emulate local basketball internationals of the past and talking about their kick-boxing classes the night before.

In the bookies there is talk of the road bowling to come and the trotting just gone. There are parents finally yielding to the pleading of their children and booking horse riding lessons. Men are walking greyhounds, kids are learning to swim, a ball is being kicked against a wall, a match is being replayed in a footpath conversation. I'm sure it's no different where you're from.

All these sports engender in people a passion they'd never be able to summon for any referendum campaign or Dáil debate. Perhaps it's because they see politics as something that's done to them and sport as something they do.

A couple of years back, RTE ran a pretty tawdry series about young lads in a small town trying to give up

drink, their perpetual plaint being, 'there's nothing to do round here'. As chance had it, the town in question was Tullow, home of Irish rugby star Seán O'Brien. O'Brien hit the roof when he heard the boys whingeing. What were they on about, he wondered, wasn't Tullow coming down with sports they could have been playing instead of bemoaning their lot in the pub. And he was right. Sport can make the smallest town or village seem charged with infinite possibility.

Sport, at whatever level, is good for the soul. And saying you 'don't like sport' is a bit like saying you don't like music. There's something out there for everyone.

Perhaps the great lesson of the Irish team for 2012 is that a diversity of sport leads to a diversity of competitors. It will be a long time before you see a Traveller, a Latvian emigrant, an Ulster Protestant or a member of the Irish community in London in the Dáil. But they're more than welcome on our Olympic team. In terms of simple decency and valuing what a person does rather than who they are, Sporting Ireland trumps Official Ireland every time. If you want to see who we really are, don't look at our politicians, look at our Olympic team.

It's a wondrous and beautiful thing this great sporting tapestry unfolding on our roads, our fields, our courses and courts this sunny morning. And it should make you proud to be Irish. Whatever kind of Irish you are.

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