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1 December 2013 Edition

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One equal temper of heroic hearts

Between the Posts

The trick is to inhale the passion and energy of sport without the toxic fumes

STRANGE, how the mood-state of a nation can be affected so dramatically by sport. Ireland’s spirited defeat in rugby union by the New Zealand All Blacks in Dublin inspired an afterglow which warmed hearts (if not frozen fingers and feet) across the 32 counties.

It was reminiscent of the moment when Katie Taylor won Ireland’s gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Then there was an outbreak of hysteria and emotion which was utterly incredible. Scenes of thousands of people in the street to greet the homecoming of our Olympic champion.

Perhaps the sense of national identity and euphoria apparent in many sporting occasions is something to beware of. After all, it is only sport. But social scientists know that values and expectations can be moulded and influenced by sporting events as much as by any social gathering. So what is the problem?

One of the greatest intellects of our generation, Noam Chomsky, derides the influence of sport as a “crucial example of the indoctrination system . . . It offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about.”

As ever, Chomsky pricks our minds softly with his probing insights. The muffled public response in Ireland to the banksterism of the current Dublin government could be invoked to support his thesis. Eighty-three thousand people can swarm into Dublin on All-Ireland Sunday but a fraction of that number have joined public protests against the economic decimation of many parts of Ireland and in which Cumann Luthchleas Gael has itself suffered collateral damage.

There can be little doubt that men’s sport still dominates the media, and male sports people are afforded a higher status — and often higher earnings.

Compare the profile given to sportspeople competing at national and international level and the differential treatment of women is rife. But you daren’t ask the coaches or officials why that’s the case (they’re mostly men too). So, is sexism and inequality simply part of sport, or are they cultivated and insinuated through our sports?

It could be (and has been) argued by some that the national fervour surrounding sporting events is an outward expression of jingoism and supremacism. The recent twitter tirade against Irish soccer star James McClean is another example. Last year he chose not to wear a poppy and was subjected to a barrage of abuse through print and social media. This year, Wigan didn’t field him on Remembrance Sunday and the abuse reignited. ‘Poppy fascism’ seems to be especially infectious amongst sports fans, especially soccer. Likewise sectarianism.

Belfast playwright Marie Jones cleverly examined this through the play A Night in November. It was located in Belfast 20 years ago. Ireland, North and South, played against one another in a world cup qualifier in Windsor Park. I remember seeing the play with Dan Gordon acting as ‘Kenneth McCallister’, a dole official who rejoiced in the fact that he could keep jobless Catholics waiting in a queue. For sport, Kenneth went to Windsor Park with his father-in-law. The play potently depicts how sectarian taunts and racist filth was flung at players from the terraces in Windsor Park. So repulsed is he by what he witnessed in the behaviour of his friends and family that Kenneth turned away from ‘his own’. He came to see himself as ‘a Protestant and an Irishman’. For the uninitiated, this drama about Windsor Park may have seemed melodramatic. But those who ventured there know the sense of menace which pervaded the place. My father once smuggled myself and my two younger brothers into a game there. We all had aliases for the evening. I’ve never been back to Windsor Park since then.

Two decades later, sport in Ireland is in rude health. This year, Rob Heffernan became the World Champion in 50km. Martyn Irvine won a world title in cycling. The Ireland’s women’s rugby team won the Triple Crown. My own hinterland of south-west Antrim celebrated Tony McCoy’s 4,000th win on horseback. William Porterfield became the first batsman to reach a century in cricket for Ireland. The team he captains went on to reach the World Cup final. Of course, no recap of sport this year would be complete without hailing the irrepressible Cork women’s Gaelic team, the inexhaustible male footballers of Dublin, and the indomitable young hurlers of Clare.

Without disputing Chomsky’s thesis, I think we can have our cake and eat it when it comes to sport. The trick is to inhale the passion and energy of sport without the toxic fumes. In that way, improbable feats in other walks of life might even be possible. Sport is something to enjoy, even to inspire. Like this quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

That which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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