Wednesday 29 January 2020

Eamonn Sweeney: Positive heroes treat success and disaster just the same

From Barr to Bolt, Rio has flourished as an antidote to prevailing grimness in sport

Annalise Murphy proudly shows off her silver medal. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Annalise Murphy proudly shows off her silver medal. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The Olympics provide a snapshot of the state of the sporting world at a certain point in time. They can challenge our preconceptions about what sport means and how it should be pursued. Sometimes they reveal unpalatable truths and sometimes they suggest different ways of doing things. We learn lessons from the Olympics.

My own favourite performers of this games, and I suspect I'm not alone in this, have been the O'Donovan brothers, Usain Bolt, Annalise Murphy and Thomas Barr. The lesson which they have taught us above anything else is that it's time to jettison the idea of sport as a grim enterprise which can best be pursued in a spirit of meanness and abjection. Success at the highest level in sport does not have to involve behaving as though you're serving in a punishment battalion on the Russian front.

Look at Gary and Paul O'Donovan. Competing in one of the most gruelling sports possible, they managed to maintain an infectious spirit of good humour throughout. The impression was of two young men who, while being deadly serious about their sport, didn't take themselves too seriously.

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This is a pretty important attribute in young men because young men, if I recall correctly, don't need much encouragement to start acting like the haunted protagonists of some grim 19th century Russian novel. Of late this gloomy tendency has been positively encouraged by many of those in charge of Irish sporting teams. John McGahern once commented that in the Ireland of his youth it was considered morally good to go around with a long face on you. This Jansenistic mentality seems to have persisted in Irish sport and I'd put a decent bet that it's turned more people away from participation than any other factor.

You know the score. Managers and players uttering through pursed lips grim koans culled from manuals of self-help and middle management, justifying negativity and foul play on the grounds of the terrible pressure they're under and going on and on and on about sacrifice. People haven't talked so much about the sacrifices they've made since the Aztec high priests used to get together for a drink after work on a Friday evening.

We have managers getting players to sign behaviour contracts, managers imposing quasi-military punishments on players, and managers in general seeking a kind of unquestioning obedience as though this is the only way success can be achieved. When the Gaelic Players Association revealed a while back that there were high levels of depression among inter-county players, few people were surprised. The problem is that the GPA seemed to think that this accurately reflected the level of depression among young men in the country.

But can you imagine a more depressing environment than spending time under the command of some of our more authoritarian inter-county managers? It must be like Lough Derg without the laughs. I remember thinking that a nadir had been reached a few years back when a retiring inter-county star refused point blank in an interview to admit that he'd knocked the merest scintilla of enjoyment out of his career. Pressed to do so, he just wasn't having it. No, said your man, it was all a sacrifice which I did for the people of my county.

Things have got even more grim and self-pitying since then. The gas thing is that while most of the grim school of management probably think they're channelling Vince Lombardi or Alex Ferguson, they actually come off more like Gordon Ramsey, Simon Cowell or Alan Sugar. The signature TV format of our time involves a bully shouting at people and telling them that only by knuckling under will they achieve anything. It's a mighty depressing worldview and one which has been taken on board by people in many sports, Gaelic games simply being the most visible in this country.

That's why the O'Donovans are such a breath of fresh air. For one thing seeing the cheerful and witty way they answered questions just minutes after finishing their races was an eye-opener for any journalist who's been told that he can't interview a GAA player the week before a game because their concentration might be upset.

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The O'Donovans would be fitter than almost any other sportsmen on this island, but they didn't feel the need to hammer on about this in their interviews or to detail the stations of the cross they'd undergone on the way to that fitness. In fact, they famously pointed out that ­anyone with two arms and two legs could do what they did. And by ­looking like they were enjoying what they did, they increased the possibility of ­youngsters following in their steps.

Usain Bolt has already brought legions of kids into his sport. We've become so used to him at this stage that it's easy to forget what an anomalous figure Bolt cuts. He is a walking, talking, smiling retort to the idea that grim is good. A BBC commentator commented before the 200m final that as the years go by we've realised that Bolt isn't indulging in gratuitous showboating, he's merely expressing his personality. Watching him getting ready for his last individual Olympic final, it was impossible not to feel a surge of affection for that gangling figure, listening to his music, busting a few moves, stopping to have a chat and joke with some trackside factotum. If only, you thought, everyone could approach sport in this way.

Read more: Bolt -  'I want to be remembered like Pele or Ali'

You can argue that it's easy for Bolt to take this attitude given the enormous natural talent he's been blessed with. Yet there have been other enormous natural talents in athletics and nobody has made as much of their talent as Bolt. When he won the 100m he was the first athlete in history to win track gold at three successive Olympics. Then he doubled the achievement in the 200m. The ability to maintain his hunger and keep going has been not the least impressive thing about Bolt. Yet he has done so without ever giving the impression that the sport had become a chore for him. Bolt's cheerfulness and relaxed attitude may in fact be his secret weapon. Maybe grimness isn't a help after all but a hindrance.

What's striking about Bolt is his lack of meanness. It makes people love him and it also provides a fantastic example for the kids who watch him. Because sportsmen, whether managers or players, who act as though meanness of spirit is a prerequisite for success validate it in the wider society. The office bully, the corporate egotist, the domestic dictator feel justified by their example and think that being an asshole is not a drawback but something which gives you a competitive advantage.

That's why it's important to see nice guys finishing among the medals. Nice gals too. Annalise Murphy's demeanour as she won silver in the sailing competition was, in its own more understated way, every bit as praiseworthy as that of the O'Donovans and Bolt. Seldom has the definition of class as grace under pressure been so apt. Beset by setbacks since agonisingly missing out on a medal four years ago and written off before the games, Murphy would have been forgiven for boasting a bit after she took silver. Instead, like her rowing compatriots, she was a shining example of that old Kipling line about treating success and disaster just the same.

Thomas Barr's remarkable interview following his 400m hurdles final also suggested a rare integrity. A few minutes after missing out on an Olympic gold medal by five-hundredths of a second, Barr was willing to go through the race bit by bit even as his emotions were obviously on the verge of overpowering him. Once more there were no clichés, no pat formulations. Thomas Barr had no fear of letting his own personality shine through.

WATCH: The touching moment when Thomas Barr met his parents for the first time after his Olympic heroics

Murphy and Barr also dealt a significant blow to two other key beliefs. You'd imagine that the deeds of Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara et al would have long ago scotched the idea that ­middle-class people aren't every bit as fiercely competitive in the sporting arena as their working-class counterparts. Yet bogus salt-of-the-earth nonsense about the necessity for sportsmen to have some acquaintance with ­economic misery continues to do the rounds, most of it propagated by romantically guilty ­middle-class pundits. Those who commented in the wake of Murphy's medal winning performance that sailing is 'a middle class sport' were making no point at all. There were a lot of very tough people out there on the water in Rio, and the Dublin woman was as tough as any of them, or any boxer come to think of it.

Similarly, how many times have we heard talk about sportsmen 'putting their life on hold' or suffering ­financially because apparently you can't play ­inter-county football and do well at work at the same time? Well Thomas Barr has managed to become truly world-class in one of the hardest events in the most competitive sport at the Olympics while earning a first-class honours degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters in Sports Performance. This kind of life-sport balance is not an unusual thing among our athletes and it strikes me as a very healthy thing indeed.

This year has at times seemed like a deliberate demonstration of the grimmer potentialities of existence. Life does have its grim aspects. But sport shouldn't be one of them. If we can all take away from Rio the lesson that you can do well at sport without sacrificing your soul, your sense of humour and your smile, then the last fortnight will have been a very worthwhile experience indeed.

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