It’s been quite an Olympics for Ireland with the boxers coming up trumps, not that there’s anything unusual about that. What was unusual was a medal from another source, in this case the equestrian team and Cian O’Connor. It is perhaps a sign of our Growing Maturity As A Nation™ that his success was not greeted with universal acclaim, Cian having notoriously won the gold medal in Athens only for it to be stripped from him for doping offences. Ewan MacKenna in particular was vociferous in his opinion that O’Connor was a cheat who should be shunned by all in polite society. The ‘debate’ got rather incendiary so it’s probably better reading his blog post on the subject where you’ll get a much more robust case file against O’Connor. However, one comment he made as the accusations flew back and forth struck me as misconceived, to put it mildly:
Sport, the greatest thing in life? Please. I know Ewan makes a living writing about it, although I discovered after my brief stint with Tramore Hinterland that even that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as you spend every waking hour fretting about trying to come up with something fresh to a strict deadline. And that was only for eleven weeks.
To the committed supporter though, sport is a right royal pain in the arse. You lurch from triumph to disaster – mostly the latter, for there can ultimately be only one winner in any competition – with none of the sang-froid that Kipling puts forward as the exemplar of manhood. You fool yourself that all you want is for your team/man/woman to try their best, but you don’t. You want them to win and are crushed when they don’t. When Guardian hack Oliver Burkeman went to see a soccer match for the first time, he suggested to this friend that “there’d be no fun in supporting a team that was guaranteed to win every match 6-0, would there?” Actually, says his friend, that would be great. And for all of Liverpool’s travails, they still win more often than they lose. It is, in short, a penance.
But what of the neutral, the dispassionate observer who revels in the pursuit of excellence by perfectly-honed specimens of humanity? Well, if that’s the case you shouldn’t be watching team sports which exist only to satisfy the partisan bloodlust of the committed. You can admire the artistry of Lionel Messi or John Mullane all you like, but constraints are put on them by being in a team. They can never reach their full potential due to the club-footed pygmies that surround them. You might as well try to appreciate the beauty of the Mona Lisa through frosted glass – it’s all there, but it’s distorted to the point of uselessness. Better to give into the bloodlust. At least then you’ll have company.
There’s individual sports, of course. You can watch Usain Bolt and just marvel at the sight of him, and I must confess to being agog last night at the sheer beauty of David Rushida’s world record run in the 800m. Sadly, you can’t watch any individual without thinking ‘drugs’. There are different degrees of unbelievableness to outstanding performances. For example, it’s nigh-on impossible to believe that Lance Armstrong could win seven Tour De France yellow jerseys while being the only one who was clean. At the other end of the spectrum you’d like to think Katie Taylor is clean, but you can never be certain because of the pervasiveness of drugs. Equestrian seems to be a sport which is nowhere facing up to the problem. The man who received Cian O’Connor’s tainted gold, Rodrigo Pessoa, would have his results from the Beijing games annulled for doping offences. Closer to home Jessica Kuerten, who refused to compete in an Aga Khan Cup team with O’Connor in 2005, would herself be done for doping in 2007. She vigorously protested their innocence, and maybe she was right that it was all a procedural error. You can’t watch sport these days though without a fair degree of jaundice. The yellow complexion is doubtless a symptom of the drugs.
Initially I started this post with the intention of denouncing the corrosive influence of money in sport and how the GAA would do well to stay away from it. 700 words on and I haven’t the energy for it, something no amount of amphetamines would fix. Remembering how a former inter-county Minor hurler of my acquaintance informed me that his college room-mate of a similar standing was popping pills like Dr House should have dissuaded me of the purity of the GAA a long time ago. ‘Sport’ is ammoral. Individual sports are arguably more virtuous than others, but if you want it to be pure there’s only one way to be certain – play it yourself.
*Title used with h/t to The Onion