Living up to my name with a rambling view on the futile search for saviours in sport…
On Sunday evening in Beijing, the fastest man ever to have lived accelerated to a top speed of 29mph, stretched for the finish line and added yet another sprint title to his illustrious record. In the media gallery, commentator Steve Cram led the cheerleading for the BBC. “Bolt has saved his title! He’s saved his reputation! He may have even saved his sport”. Beside him, Brendan Foster danced a jig of delight crossed with a drunk uncle at a wedding, such was his joy at the momentous occasion. A carnival atmosphere to celebrate Usain Bolt overcoming injury and average form to retain his 100m world title and dismiss the challenge of Justin Gatlin.
About an hour later and nearly 7,500 miles away, Kerry and Tyrone took to the field in Croke Park to contest the first of this year’s All Ireland senior football semi-finals. After a cagey first half, a resilient Red Hand challenge was eventually overcome to secure consecutive final appearances for the Munster men. It was a dogged contest in poor conditions with ultimately Kerry’s game-changers from the bench and greater experience seeing them through. And strangely, the reception to this victory bore some similarities to Bolt’s gold medal.
In the reviews and analysis that followed, there were two recurring themes to the general discourse. Firstly, that refereeing incompetency influenced the direction of the contest when it was still very much in the balance. Seondly and somewhat more subtly, that if they had triumphed the Ulstermen would have been unworthy or at least unwelcome victors. Both of these should be refuted. Regardless of refereeing errors – and Maurice Deegan made a few – the simple fact of the matter is that Tyrone had numerous opportunities to take the initiative. Ultimately, several spurned goal chances and missed frees at critical times proved their downfall.
However, what really resonated was the sanctimonious air with which their elimination from the championship proper was greeted in certain quarters. Tyrone haven’t won too many admirers for their style of play this year, and I’ve previously written about the gap between this side and their recent predecessors. However their approach was effective in the qualifier run and they had reached the semi-final on merit and within the rules of the game as they had been enforced, albeit arguably with very little moral credit among neutrals. Despite these issues, the sense of righteousness about the final result didn’t sit well, as if the purists from the Kingdom had to somehow debase themselves and lower their ethical standards to achieve victory. Vincent Hogan referred to Kerry in Monday’s Independent as the “white knights” of Gaelic football, and lauded them for learning to “play dark” to meet the Tyrone challenge. If that’s true, then there were already plenty of dried blood stains on those shining suits of armour.
The biggest compliment that can be paid to Kerry football is they are the masters of evolution in terms of footballing principles. An ability to understand tactical structures which have defeated them and return with it mastered better than the innovators. To meet brawn and brain accordingly as the occasion demands. However, there is an air of romanticism attached to the national view of their football which is almost sacrosanct, as though 37 All-Ireland titles have been secured merely through decades of poetic attacking play and gentlemanly conduct. Kerry are rightly lauded for their footballing tradition, but let’s not elevate them to a higher moral plane because of their success. Whether it’s Páidí O’Sé’s left hook in response to a clip from Dinny Allen, Tadgh Kennelly’s unprovoked poleaxing of Nicholas Murphy, or James O’Donoghue’s penchant for finding the floor in opportune positions, Kerry know what it takes to win.
But of course from Beijing to Drumcondra, the common thread here is the overwhelming need for the narrative. Good v Evil. “Light v Dark”. The desire for a saviour to cure all ills. It’s only human to want to enjoy sport for sport’s sake, and set aside wider issues. Witness the championing of Chris Froome and Manny Pacquiao in the past twelve months alone, despite the unsavoury questions to be asked in both their respective codes. But if anyone is to save sport, then it lies with the guardians of the code, not the competitors. Athletes perform to the best of their abilities, but the law and order needed to ensure a level playing field rests with the custodians. Regardless of Bolt’s performance, the fact remains that an unrepentant, twice-convicted drugs cheat was allowed to take to the starting line. Had Gatlin been found guilty of his indiscretions in more recent years, he would likely have been on the receiving end of a lifetime ban. Had he not wilted under pressure from Bolt in the closing ten metres on Sunday, he would likely be world champion today. These are the fine margins of the elite, and the sole saviours are the governing bodies who can enforce and protect the virtues of fairness and equality.
No sport is perfect but is still cherished by supporters in spite of the various flaws. The prevalence of doping continues to dog athletics and cycling. A lack of refereeing consistency and transparency in the disciplinary process has drawn as much attention in this past GAA season as the games themselves. Head trauma in American Football and rugby. The integration of indigenous players in Australian Rules. Widespread fraud and corruption in soccer. All can be forgotten by the average supporter, whether it be for 9.8 seconds or 90 minutes. But beyond the fleeting moments of brilliance on the track or field, those issues and more still remain. Sport is human and these are human failings – no trophies or medals can compensate for them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the achievements for what they are, and live in those moments of glory or failure. Institutionalised sport always has been and always will be flawed, but that doesn’t make it any less captivating. Overcoming those flaws as best as possible requires concerted and collaborative efforts. To seek individual saviours is to seek the divine. Alas we remain mere mortals.