Thursday, January 02, 2020

The Year in Sports

Shane Lowry was, naturally, a popular choice for RTÉ’s Sports Personality of the Year. The nation sees itself in Lowry – smashing them off the tee, showing nerves of ice on the green, and lorrying porter on the 19th. Fine girl you are.

He wasn’t the right choice though. The Sports Personality of the Year Award should have gone to Stephen Cluxton, goalkeeper of the Dublin football team that won an unprecedented five All-Ireland titles in a row.

That there wasn’t more talk of it is a reflection of Lowry’s popularity, and the fact that Lowry’s own GAA-credentials are first class. But it was still the wrong decision.

If not naming Cluxton footballer of the year earlier, or not naming him as the All-Star goalkeeper earlier, were scandalous, then how much more scandalous was the lack of acknowledgement of the great gouges in the history books with which Dublin have carved their names? And how often can it be that one team can be summed up in one player, a rock on which all subsequent edifices are built?
And how often do we see a player absolutely redefine the very concept of his position, as Cluxton has done?

There are two arguments contra Cluxton. The first is that Sports Personality of the Year is an annual award, rather than a body-of-work award. The second is that Lowry’s achievement in winning the British Open was greater than Cluxton’s in winning five All-Ireland titles in a row.

The first argument is bogus, because annual awards are about bodies of work as much as they’re about any particular year. Did Paul Newman win an Oscar for The Color of Money because Color of Money a better film than The Hustler, say, or because Newman acted better in The Color of Money than in The Hustler? Was John Wayne really better in True Grit than he was in The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Come on, now.

We’re on trickier ground when we come to comparing sports, of course. Lowry is the third Irishman to win the British Open. Five straight All-Irelands have never been won before, and there were some pretty good teams that won four. Five was beyond all of them.

And then the third and, for your correspondent, clinching argument. This year is the 35th running of the RTÉ Sports Personality of the Year. Lowry is the ninth golfer to win it. No Gaelic footballer has ever won it. Bejabbers, but the nation must be fierce gone on the golf all the same.

And speaking of rugby, there was some harrumphing about no rugby player having been nominated for that Sports Personality list this year, harrumphing that was easily silenced by asking who, exactly, had covered himself in glory in the year gone by.

Rugby is in a strange place right now. If, as its critics would argue, every game outside of a World Cup match is a friendly, then international rugby becomes the Brigadoon of sports, rising from the mist only every now and again. And the worst thing for rugby is that scheduling is the least of its worries.

Nearly a quarter-century from the advent of professionalism, the new reality hasn’t bedded in at all. Players are torn by the competing demands of club and country, the need to physically survive so attritional a game, and the hope that they won’t end up in homes for the bewildered in their old age, their brains having been battered about like Moore St oranges for ten or fifteen years.

In praising the new breed of lock forward in his Sunday Times column, Stuart Barnes put his finger on another problem of the game, which is its increasing homogeny. Rugby used to be a game of many dimensions, with room for big men, small men, fat men and thin men.

Now, like motor cars, science sees us thundering towards the one streamlined super-player, fast enough to be a back, strong enough to be forward, and all looking the same from one to fifteen. If the players are all the same then the gamed will be all the same and the élan and artistry and sheer drama that international rugby served up for over one hundred years will all be lost and gone with the wind.

Not that you’d know that from the rugby press here. Your faithful correspondent was rather taken aback as different rugby scribes aimed kicks at Joe Schmidt once Schmidt was safely on a plane to the other side of the world and couldn’t hold it against them. The start of the Andy Farrell reign, where the IRFU gave the press a list of list of approved journalists and press accepted being dictated to like lambs and slaves, is not a hopeful sign. It’s the job of the media to tell the people what’s going on. It’s not the job of the media to act as an adjunct of the IRFU’s PR department.

The story of the decade of course is the one that can’t be reported. The FAI are fifty-million Euro in debt, and they say they don’t know how it happened. How can you end up in a fifty-five million Euro hole unbeknownst to you? Fifty-five million is a considerable amount of potatoes. If you were five million in the red, you’d say things were bad. Fifty-five million is Department of Health level stuff. Complete systems failure.

And the public will, as is traditional in the land of Erin, be the last to know. The top brass of the FAI has had legal eagles ready to swoop at any vague hints that there might be funny business going on for the past twenty years and it is a fact that Irish libel laws protect and favour the interests of the strong over those of the weak.

Don’t think that anybody will see prison bars over this either. We don’t do white-collar crime well in Ireland, I’m afraid. The FAI will probably be bailed out by a government too chicken to let nature take its course. Small fry will be put on the dole as a result of that bailout, but the parties responsible will pack up and move to retirement in sunny Spain, and get season tickets for Barca, maybe. It stinks, and it’ll continue to stink for quite some time.

Happy New Year.