The Irish Sporting Nation

The Irish Sporting Nation

Written by therock67
Friday, 22 September 2006
How many times have we heard Ireland described as a great sporting nation? We love to talk about ourselves as great sports people. Indeed sometimes we are heard to comment on how remarkable it is that a country our size can have so much success in sport. The reality, unfortunately, is very different. Our global successes pale into insignificance beside most countries of equal size. At best we are a nation of eager sports enthusiasts: supporters and aficionados but average competitors. At worst we are a nation of gombeen men: swallowing the hype about our greatness, while we all don leprauchan hats and head overseas to support our miserable teams.

One of the huge difficulties in assessing our appetite for, and competence at, sport is the popularity of gaelic games in this country. It is inevitable that many of our most talented sportspeople will be involved in gaelic football or hurling, where comparisons with international standards are either difficult or impossible. It is natural that our success in international sporting fields will be diminished when a high percentage of our elite athletes are competing in a sport without a true international dimension. This is one of the areas where Irish sport is unique, and it is one element of Irish sport that we can be rightly proud of.

Internationally we have undoubtedly had some great sporting successes over the years. Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the World Championships in 1987 stands out as a remarkable individual achievement. Our jockeys at national hunt and flat racing are top class, as our are trainers. Olympic medals won by Carruth, Delaney, O Connor and Smyth were extraordinary individual feats - a little too extraordinary in a couple of cases. Our soccer team have certainly raised the bar in the past twenty years, from a team of decent individuals and occassional results to relatively consistent performers on the international stage.

We have produced some truly world class rugby players over the years: whatever one thinks of Brian O Driscoll he is an outstanding talent. We have had some excellent golf players over the years, though we are without a major win in the last fifty years. On the athletics track John Treacey, Eamon Coughlan and Sonia O Sullivan (along with the aforementioned Delaney) have been worthy competitors. We are lead to believe that our current crop of rowers are in the top bracket. Steve Collins, Barry McGuigan, Wayne McCullough are all world title holders. There are obviously other athletes in more obscure sports who excel in their respective fields, though none are competing in the more global sports. Does this represent a nation punching above its weight or should we not be expecting a few individuals in a few sports to excel from time to time, by virtue of the law of averages if nothing else.

However a closer examination of some of these achievements removes some of the gloss. Cian O Connor’s gold medal has been stripped. Michelle Smyth’s successes at Atlanta have been wiped from the memory (though oddly both Jimmy Magee and Cathal Dervan seem determined to cling onto the notion that she is a misunderstood national hero). Of the nine gold medals awarded to Irish athletes at Summer Olympics (admittedly this figure is distorted by the 26 county/6 county split in some spots), one was stripped for a doping offence and three more are severely tarnished by a subsequent drugs ban. That leaves us with five blemish-free gold medals. More controversially the successes of Stephen Roche is not as crystal clean as one might hope. Roche was implicated in the trial of Dr Giovanni Grazzi (a doctor in the Carrera team), whom it was claimed administered EPO to the riders. Although the judge stated that “One cannot but arrive at the conclusion that Dr Grazzi was effectively involved in the direct dispensing of EPO,” too much time has passed for Roche or the team officials to be tried under Italian law. While the horse racing industry in Ireland has many extremely talented individuals such as Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Kieran Fallon and Aidan O’Brien it is just that: an industry. Much of our success is built on multi-millionaire owners benefiting from tax exemptions to fund their operations.

Our current world class performers are very thin on the ground. This is not to lay the blame with our sportspeople, rather it calls into question our right to consider ourselves a major player in international sport. We don’t really have any medal contenders jumpting out at us for the next Summer Olympics. Our soccer team is enjoying a break from expectation as we are told they are “building for the future.” Our rugby team is knocking on the door of the top level and threatening to become major players. The suspicions is that this is nothing more thatn a threat however and in time we will regress to also-rans in the six nations and world cup. Certainly we are unlikely to improve over the long-term when our player base is so small and the IRFU are doing precious little to move the game outside its current comfort zone. The over-reliance on a school structure, rather than clubs or parishes, coupled with the greedy ticket pricing for the Croke Park internationals should serve to keep the working classes away from the game in the Dublin area anyway.



Compare the achievements of Ireland with similar population pools in Europe: Finland have a top class ice hockey side. They have an adequate soccer team, two current top class racing drivers, they have 100 summer olympics gold medals and a further 41 in the winter olympics. Denmark have an excellent soccer pedigree, having produced top class players like Michael Laudrup, 44 summer olympics gold medals, a number of world champion badminton players to select a few statistics at random. It is a simlar story with Norway: a huge olympics medal haul (51 gold) to compare with our achievements. A soccer team roughly equitable with Ireland and plenty of individual successes in specialist winter sports such as skiing. Scotland and Bulgaria are much the same story. Other than our national games where we must be confident that our elite players are truly exceptional, Ireland has produced very average athletes over the years. We excel only at horse racing in an international context, everywhere else we are distictly average. At best.

Moving on to our wonderful supporters - after all isn’t it wonderful that with so few top class athletes in Ireland that we continue to follow sporting events in such large numbers? If only that was the case. As a nation we seem to be attracted to the hype and the television cameras. Nobody bothers going to watch Eircom League soccer for example. The national football and hurling leagues are poorly attended. Munster have vacant spaces in their 12,000 capacity ground for Celtic League games and plenty of European Cup group games. The punters who don’t attend these games, but complain when they can’t get a ticket for the final in Wales, are not watching All Ireland League games instead by the way. Croke Park is half empty for championship games unless it’s a triple header (in which case the attendance fluctuates dramatically over the afternoon), a final or semi-final or Dublin are involved. The National Stadium is rarely full for amateur boxing contests. The streets are lined with nobody when the Rs comes to town (compare with the thousands who will turn up to line the streets when an opentop bus glorifying a joint 8th place finish in the World Cup passes by). The sad fact is we aren’t interested in attending sport in Ireland.

Until the cameras come to town that is. Everyone is a golf fan when one of our wealthy benefactors purchases the Ryder Cup for us. Noel C Duggan manages to get a boxing match, and crucially Sky Sports, to Millstreet so the place is packed to the rafters. A media frenzy builds up around the Munster rugby team’s pursuit of the “Holy Grail” so we all want to be there. The World Cup looks like great fun so let’s go and watch that. Soccer fans spend thousands of Euro travelling to the World Cup in Germany to watch Serbia and Montenegro take on the Ivory Coast. They wouldn’t be bothered watching a domestic game obviously. Unless it’s in the Champions League or the UEFA Cup and the firt round minnows have already been beaten. It doesn’t even have to be sport. Give us a giant American aircraft carrier and we’ll queue all night to have a walk about on it if it’s hyped enough. Riverdance, Eurovision, You’re a Star… it’s all the same. Three nights at Croke Park for U2 because they’re the band to see live. Red Hot Chilli Peppers back for the sixth year in a row because they can still milk us for the big bucks for the big occassion. Even the theatre: I Keano back for its fourteenth and final run. Alone it Stands on a national tour in case anybody was out of the country last time around. Stones in his Pockets on a permanent residency at the Gaiety, missing only for a two week interval now and again when Flatley rolls into town. We don’t love sport, we love hype. There was a great article in the satirical magazine The Onion a while back about a local man who wasn’t afraid to try popular new things. That’s us in a nutshell I’m afraid.

The above is not a criticism of the Munster rugby team, Steve Collins or Dublin GAA. Indeed without these successes from time to time we would have nothing to get excited about as a nation. The point is that we kid ourselves by believing we love sport and we’re successful at it. The average man on the street loves Sky Sports. We love watching sport in the comfort of our homes and pontificating on it in the pub later. There’s nothing wrong with that - everyone loves a pub debate but let’s not pretend we’re the great fans we purport to be. If it’s not on television we won’t be there. Indeed if it’s not on television outside Ireland we’re unlikely to bother attending. When the Celtic Tiger cash runs out we might stop going to sport altogether. If it’s a big international sporting event we’re unlikely to have many competitors involved, certainly very few with a chance of winning: unless of course we’ve pooled our resources with the rest of Europe.