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.