Tuesday 12 December 2017

When push comes to shove

Jelena Dokic healed the rift following her father Damir's release from jail for threatening an ambassador to Serbia with a hand grenade
Jelena Dokic healed the rift following her father Damir's release from jail for threatening an ambassador to Serbia with a hand grenade

Eamonn Sweeney

A couple of decades back I was watching a fairly meaningless league match when I got talking to a former inter-county footballer in the stand.

The game was petering uneventfully out towards the half-time break when a huge brawl erupted on the pitch in front of us. "Sorry," said your man and ran down to the fence, hopped over it and began trading blows with a number of players, oblivious to the damage inflicted on his Sunday best by the mucky pitch.

Order was restored and our hero left the field and returned to his old place in the stands where he continued our conversation as if nothing had happened. I didn't ask him why he'd invaded the pitch. I knew why. He had a few sons on one of the teams and a couple of them were getting a bit of a doing in the scrap.

I couldn't help thinking of that rainy day in the midlands last week when I saw a bespectacled 61-year-old gent from the Basque Country achieve YouTube immortality by making a similar intervention during the French Top 14 match between Biarritz and Bayonne. The man's name is Lucien Harinordoquy and he charged on to the field and got stuck into a couple of Bayonne players who were attacking his son Imanol.

We are, of course, enjoined to take such encroachments very seriously and to wag a stern moral finger at miscreants such as Harinordoquy Pere. But I suspect most people found the incident funny and also kind of heart-warming. His son might be one of the most famous, and one of the toughest, rugby players in the world but as far as Lucien is concerned Imanol is still his little boy. And when you see your little boy being picked on, you tend to react. As a journalist, I can see what Lucien did is a terrible breach of sporting etiquette. As a parent, I know where he's coming from.

Most famous sportsmen and sportswomen owe a great deal to their parents. So do most of us who played sport as kids. Your parents, or parent, bring you to training, buy you that first kit and pair of boots, kick a ball around with you in the yard and cheer you on from the sidelines. And often the kids who blossom at underage level are the ones whose parents show the most interest.

My father managed an underage soccer team in Sligo when I was a teenager and it was notable that many of the other teams were also managed by guys whose kids played, and played well, hardy warriors like Paddy Kenny, Noel Downes, Charlie Conlon and John Hogg. It seemed a natural progression from taking an interest in your own kid's progress to wanting to become involved with their team. I notice the same thing here in Cork at grassroots level in the GAA.

When you're running a team you cherish the enthusiastic parent. They're the ones who provide transport on match day, who help line the pitch and wash the jerseys. They are the heartbeat of a club. But they're also the ones who can cross the line.

I'm sure, for example, that Damir Dokic and Jim Pierce started off with the best of intentions, enjoying the precocious aptitude their daughters showed for tennis, determined to help them make the best of it. But they ended up as the poster boys for nightmare sports parenting. Damir's career highlights included accusing the organisers of the Australian Open of fixing the draw to eliminate his daughter Jelena; being ejected from Wimbledon for being drunk and disorderly and describing the US Open as "a crime organisation," and the US as "too dirty and too communist," because he thought a plate of smoked salmon in the players' lounge was too dear.

Pierce's daughter Mary had to cope with him getting into a fight with spectators at the French Open; shouting "kill the bitch" during her matches and slapping her in the face if she lost a match or practised badly. He took her out of school to play professional tennis at the age of 13, commenting, "High school is some guy scratching his butt, trying to sell my daughter crack cocaine." Both women eventually lost form because of these distractions and severed ties with their parents, though the Dokics have recently healed the rift following Damir's release from jail for threatening the Australian Ambassador to Serbia with a hand grenade. As you do.

Tennis parents seem to be particularly susceptible to going too far, perhaps because the game requires such financial sacrifices. Put the rest of your family life on hold and sink all your money into making your child a star and perhaps it's not surprising if you lose a bit of perspective. But even some of the success stories of sports parenting can show behaviour which borders on the obsessional. How many parents would be prepared to emulate Earl Woods, who started Tiger playing golf at the age of two and had him professionally coached when he was five?

There are examples closer to home. I remember a father from my childhood who would run every step of every race with his kids at local sports, following them along the side of the track, bellowing "come on, come on for fuck sake." There was the guy who, when I worked on a local paper, came in and offered me money to write that his son had played well in a local club match. And I can't count the number of times when some well-known player's name has come up in discussion and someone says, "Were you ever near his oul' fella at a match? Nightmare."

Yet I'd wager that a disproportionately large number of sports stars have what might be seen as pushy parents. Go to an underage match and it's often the best players whose fathers have the loudest voices. It would be great if this wasn't true but it is. And, on one level, you can forgive these lads. The popular psychological theory is that they want to live vicariously through

their kids. But I'm not sure if that's true, they're often guys who were very successful on the field themselves. Perhaps it's that they know kids enjoy sport more when they're winning. And they certainly enjoy it more if they make an effort and get the best out of themselves. The same goes for ballet or chess or writing a story or doing a school project. Kids like to make their parents proud. A father who sometimes errs on the side of enthusiasm can embarrass you but a father who shows no interest at all disheartens you.

It can be tough being a sporting parent, not least because if your kid makes the big stage you'll have to stand there and listen to total strangers barracking and mocking him. Christos Tsolkias's excellent novel The Slap is based around the fireworks which ensue because a parent sees their child being hit by someone else. The book has been a bestseller because the incident has struck a chord with parents everywhere. But how much more difficult must it be to sit in the stand and hear someone call your kid a dirty bastard or a useless wanker? Small wonder the sporting parent sometimes cracks under the strain.

If the French rugby authorities are tempted to throw the livre at Lucien Harinordoquy, they should ponder the great benefits they have derived over the years from Imanol's ferocious spirit. It wasn't from the wind he took it.


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