Respect Earned The Hard Way!

‘Passionate.’ That’s the adjective once commonly used to describe the Irish rugby team. The term was particularly prevalent among the rugby giants of the southern hemisphere. Prior to any big game against opponents from south of the equator, rival players would queue up to tell us how respectful they were of the fighting Irish and how they were  wary of the ‘passion’ Ireland always brought to the party. These extremely patronising descriptions made the cream of Irish sport sound more like horny Love Island contestants than elite sportsmen.

The curious thing about the ‘passion’ label is that was applied long after Ireland became genuine and legitimate contenders on the international stage. In the old amateur and semi-professional days such condescension was perhaps forgivable, but even as the golden generation of Irish rugby was strutting its stuff on the Test stage, opponents could still be heard routinely rabbiting on about Ireland and their famed passion.

I used to wonder about this bizarre tendency. It was excusable when Irish results were unremittingly poor, but why did such attitudes prevail when the men in green were regularly winning in the Test arena? The answer was delivered in the context of Ireland’s unremarkable record against the All Blacks-just one win recorded in countless attempts; last November in Chicago. Before a New Zealand Test a few years ago, I read an interview with a former All Black international explaining the apparent lack of recognition afforded to Ireland’s finest. ‘In order to gain our respect,’ he explained, ‘you have to beat us.’

Well, the vernacular surrounding Irish international rugby has changed markedly from the well worn and tiresome platitudes of the past. Opponents from near and far are falling over themselves to fawn over Joe Schmidt’s record breaking outfit. Recent results tell a magnificent and unprecedented story. Three Six Nations Championships, a Grand Slam, a first win over the Springboks on South African soil and the aforementioned maiden win over the world champion All Blacks is a truly formidable record. And now, remarkably, Ireland’s first ever southern hemisphere series win (against a revitalised Australia) contested over three Tests has just been achieved.

And to think there were idiots calling for Schmidt’s head not so long ago. The absurdity! Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has built a relentless and formidable squad, one capable of consistently overcoming anyone in world rugby. Number two in the world and on merit. And this side is taking Irish rugby to uncharted territory; places the golden generation could only dream of.

At the turn of the century, we marvelled at the infusion of youngsters like Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara who entered Test rugby without the fear and inferiority complex that blighted their predecessors. But the current crop is the product of an even more impressive harvest. Today’s youngsters literally expect to win every game they play. Take James Ryan. Ireland’s new dynamo of a second row has only lost one match as a professional rugby player. Consider that for a moment!

But this is what we’re dealing with. Schmidt and his squad of modest and humble superstars are taking Irish rugby to new, exciting places. The overriding concern of the Irish coach post the 2015 World Cup was to build new depth and resourcefulness into the Irish squad. And while some positions remain relatively callow, there’s no doubt Irish rugby is in as strong a position as it’s ever been. Winning plaudits from all corners of the globe and primed for an assault on rugby’s premier competition. The trophies, of course, tell their own tale, but if you need substantive proof of the esteem Ireland’s players are currently held, just listen to the respectful way opponents are now talking about them. Respect that’s been earned the hard way!

PS The football World Cup has kicked off in far away Russia and the tournament has thus far been characterised by a series of upsets and unexpected results. Despite the unpredictable start, few are expecting too many surprises come the business end of the competition. It’ll be the usual suspects in with a chance of ultimate glory. Or will it? They always seem to fall short and are perpetually addicted to underachievement, but England are due to perform in a major tournament one of these days. Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year?

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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Not Just Zebo Out In The Cold

Much has been made of Simon Zebo’s impending departure to play his rugby in France, for a yet unconfirmed destination-possibly Racing 92. As soon as it was revealed that the Irish winger/fullback had spurned the offer of a new Munster contract, speculation was rife with regard to what his exit would mean for Zebo’s international prospects. As it was, we didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Just days later, Irish coach Joe Schmidt announced an extended squad for the upcoming autumn internationals and in the lengthy list of names there was one noticeable absentee-Simon Zebo.

With Rob Kearney’s best days behind him and Jared Payne struggling to achieve an injury free run, it was widely assumed that Zebo was an absolute shoo- in for the Irish fullback berth this autumn. And yet with backfield options scarce, the Munster man has found himself surplus to requirements. Zebo’s omission has certainly shocked plenty of Irish rugby folk, with teammates and fans alike taken aback at the Munster fullback’s unexpected and sudden exclusion.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, though. In recent years, the IRFU’S policy regarding selection has been abundantly clear. If you move abroad, you’re out! As harsh as it seems, that’s been the immutable rule. With the notable exception of Johnny Sexton (too brilliant to omit), any move outside Ireland has led to the player being sent to Coventry-mostly in a metaphorical sense, you understand, but it also applies literally in the case of Marty Moore! Sexton aside, all high profile movers have been shunned and excluded from Irish selection. It didn’t matter who you were: Ian Madigan, Donnacha Ryan, JJ Hanrahan. If you left the Irish set-up, you paid the ultimate price in terms of test selection.

What makes Zebo’s case fairly unique, though, is the shunning is happening while the player is still here. Remember, he’s not going until next season. In that sense, we can detect a hardening of the Irish management’s position. The policy couldn’t be any clearer: not only will a player not be picked if he moves abroad, it now seems he won’t be selected if it’s clear he’s unavailable for any part of the World Cup cycle. Given the dearth of current options at fullback, the easy option was to pick Zebo. He was the obvious, straightforward choice. In declining to do so, Schmidt has underlined his commitment to the homegrown policy in a devastatingly uncompromising fashion.

Make no mistake about it, Irish rugby is in a bitter fight to hold onto its biggest names. In an ultra-competitive transfer market, it’s simply not possible for the IRFU to compete with the English and French clubs, with their mega-rich benefactors. And as it’s impossible to outbid their Anglo-French rivals, the IRFU has to utilise whatever leverage it has at its disposal. One advantage is the unrivalled way players are looked after within the Irish system. Instead of being flogged to pieces in the Premiership and Top 14, the Irish provinces wrap their star men in cotton wool, sensibly limiting the amount of rugby played.

The other main argument the union uses to encourage players to stay is, of course, selection. Which brings us back to Zebo. This rugby era is unique in that we’re seeing players in their prime abandoning their national systems for the unprecedented riches presently available in the club game. It’s been happening to the All Blacks for years, where even the pull of the hallowed silver fern has been unable to prevent players leaving for Europe with their best years still ahead of them. Think of Charles Piutau at Ulster as a case in point. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before such commercial realities caught up with Ireland.

And the Irish system is particularly susceptible to losing players like Zebo. A fluent French speaker who has often spoken of a desire to broaden his horizons, it’s no real surprise that the Munster man’s head has been turned. Let’s not forget that modern rugby careers are becoming increasingly short. The sport has never been more arduous and players are only ever an injury away from retirement.

And rugby isn’t like football in the sense that superstar players retire without having to work again. Rare indeed is a professional rugby player whose playing career sets him up for life. In this context, it’s quite understandable, then, that players want to enrich themselves and their families in the short time available to them. Simon Zebo is one of the lucky few who has the perspicacity to understand the need to make hay while the sun shines.

For all that, we know what the trade off is. For Irish internationals, their test careers suffer because of pragmatic if understandable choices. Unlike their predecessors of yesteryear such as Keith Wood and Geordan Murphy, the IRFU’s selection policy is no longer allowing players to have their cake and eat it. Players must decide and the choice is stark: remain in the Irish system or risk never playing for your country again.

And although Zebo is the most high profile casualty of this contentious policy, the ramifications extend way beyond any one player. Schmidt may explain Zebo’s omission in his usual loquacious style, but there’s no mistaking the severity of the message. The line is clear and unambiguous. One that’s sent a shudder through every Irish international who values his test career but may have been pondering a possible move abroad. And that’s how it has to be if the IRFU’s policy is to have any meaning. But hey, no-one ever said life was fair.  In the merciless battle to hold onto its main men, Irish rugby just got real tough.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

File:Simon Zebo 2015 RWC.jpg

By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup DSCN4917) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Here come the girls!

It doesn’t generate the hype, profile and (if truth be told) over-exposure of the men’s equivalent but the Women’s Rugby World Cup kicked off this week. The tournament is being hosted in Ireland this time. I must admit that until recently I was an avowed sceptic of the women’s version of the game. Despite being a committed rugby fan, it wasn’t something that tickled my interest in a major way. I had watched a little in the past but hadn’t quite been converted. Therefore, I noted the comments made by ex-Ireland international flanker David Corkery with interest this week. For those who missed it, Corkery, as reported in the Irish Independent, said:

“Personally, I find watching the women’s game complicated and arduous to watch. I think we all partly watch rugby because of the physical battles it produces. The big hits, the powerful runs, the struggle at the scrum and so on, however I simply do not like watching ladies knocking lumps out of each other.”

Until recently, somewhat shamefully, I agreed with some of what David said.  I believed that although there was absolutely nothing wrong with women’s rugby-if ladies wanted to play the game, good luck to them-it wasn’t something that I found particularly appealing. However, with the World Cup having kicked off, I find myself thinking quite differently. Why shouldn’t the female version of the game receive the same support and backing as its male counterpart? Why should the girls accept a status as secondary and subservient to men’s rugby? Okay, the female game doesn’t generate anywhere near as much publicity or money as the male version but does that mean that it should be considered worthless, without merit? Of course not!

I haven’t watched a huge amount of women’s rugby in recent times, but the last time I viewed a game, I was blown away by the vast improvement in the standard of the rugby on offer. The skill levels were quite superb and the players certainly weren’t lacking in physicality or technical application either. It was a world away from the first few games I’d taken in many years ago when the women’s game was still very much in its infancy. In fact, I was extremely impressed and unquestionably entertained by the spectacle on display. Absolutely nothing secondary or inferior about it.

His views have been branded controversial, but does Corkery have a point? My former misgivings about the female game had nothing whatsoever to do with the gender of the participants. I certainly wasn’t being sexist. Like the former Irish international, I merely believed that a contact sport of such obvious attrition lent itself more to the male version of the game. That the ladies, as good as they obviously were, were unable to replicate the physical intensity and aggression that’s routinely seen in a men’s rugby match.

Based on recent evidence, I’m more than happy to admit that I was wrong.  Women’s Rugby is on a definite upward curve in terms of skill and interest, as the substantial crowds have testified this week. The fans wouldn’t be coming in their droves if the standard wasn’t excellent. Women’s Rugby has indeed arrived and its emergence is a tremendous credit to everyone involved. The product may differ slightly from what punters are used to, but it undoubtedly has much to offer. Indeed, like tennis, it can be the variances that make us enjoy the sports even more. Vive La Difference! 

Despite the undoubted spectacle on offer, there’s another reason to support the Women’s Rugby World Cup. With Ireland’s bid for RWC 2023 still under consideration by World Rugby, a successful tournament can only work in the country’s favour. With everything still to play for, there’s a real incentive for Irish rugby to show the world what a wonderful job it can do. We all know about Irish hospitality, infrastructure, organisation and, of course, our wonderful fans. In Ireland, we don’t just believe, we know that we have the tools and resources to host a major international sporting event. But it’s not enough to say it. Much better to demonstrate our aptitude to as wide an audience as possible. If Ireland manage to secure the rights to host RWC 2023, the next couple of weeks could be crucial in the mission. Another reason to cheer loudly for our ladies. Here come the girls. Come on Ireland!!

On a completely unrelated note, events last week reminded me of some of the discussions I had while Donald Trump was running for the presidency. Whenever I expressed concern over a potential Trump victory and what that might mean for global relations, I recall a lot of people reassuring me: “Don’t worry, he’s very insular and isolationist by inclination.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be working out like that! Here’s hoping that cool heads prevail in this latest, unnecessary showdown. We elect our leaders to lead, to demonstrate calm, considered and reflective authority. To deescalate conflict and tension. They’re privileged to serve us. With that honour comes a massive responsibility. It’s about time they showed it!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Pierre-Selim Huard (Self-photographed) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Time for Ireland to shine!

It’s that time of year again. In these tough times we’re living in, it’s hard not to succumb to cynicism and negativity. After all, you only have to watch the television news or read a newspaper, to be bombarded with a relentless stream of woe and bad news. Yes, doom and gloom are everywhere, and there seems to be no escape from the consuming madness. Recent political decisions have only served to compound feelings of despondency and despair. And yet, in the midst of seemingly interminable darkness, the light of spring always brings a welcome infusion of happiness to our slightly beleaguered souls.

For rugby fans, this can only mean one thing: the Six Nations Championship. It’s fair to say that the much derided tournament has delivered much hope to an Irish nation that’s suffered its fair share of gloom in recent years. The Six Nations has been good to us. What wonderful memories we’ve been given by this great tournament. BOD’s hat-trick in Paris, ROG’s famous drop goal to seal the long awaited Slam and so much else besides (for those wondering what on earth I’m on about, Irish rugby fans have a strange tendency to speak in acronyms and abbreviations. And yes, I understand how irritating this must seem!).

Regardless of what else is happening in the world, the Six Nations always provides a welcome antidote to the harshness and monotony of everyday life. The competition itself is a mass of contradictions: a commercial powerhouse but one that is deeply rooted in history, tradition and Corinthian values that belong to a bygone age. In that sense, the grand old tournament is something of a sporting anachronism. A thoroughly professional competition that retains the quaintness and old-fashioned appeal of an amateur era long since consigned to the history books. Needless to say, the fans love it. What’s more remarkable, however, is that the Six Nations retains its enduring appeal despite a lack of spectacle and consistent entertainment value.

I appreciate there are those who may disagree on this point, but ask yourself the question: how often in the last ten years have you been blown away by a Six Nations match and the rugby on display? How often have you thought: “The occasion’s great and it’s nice to have a few pints in the spring sunshine; however the match we’ve just watched was pretty crap?” Of course, there have been exceptions and the business end of the tournament is never less than captivating, but the rugby itself has rarely sizzled in recent seasons. Instead, we’ve often been subjected to bore-fests, with defences dominating and teams adopting  win-at-all-costs mantras. Given the traditional format of the tournament, the absence of entertainment has hardly been surprising. Up to now, the Six Nations has predominantly been about survival and winning by any means possible.

That’s why the belated introduction of bonus points has been so universally welcomed. The initiative not only standardises the Six Nations with every other major rugby tournament on the planet, but opens up the possibility of a competition where attacking rugby is at a premium; with teams focusing on scoring tries and accumulating scores rather than shutting down opponents. One can only hope. Change was long overdue and it’s now up to the teams to show the same level of innovation on the pitch that administrators have shown in the boardrooms.

In terms of national interest, Ireland look well placed to mount a serious challenge for silverware. While the holy grail of the Grand Slam seems as elusive as ever, there’s absolutely no reason why Joe Schmidt’s men can’t regain a trophy they’ve won twice in the last three years. If a tricky opening fixture against the ascendant Scots can be negotiated safely, Ireland have the form and talent to go all the way. As ever, momentum is the key to Six Nations success. Of course so much depends on fortune and factors beyond Schmidt’s obsessive control. Injuries are part of the fabric of the modern game, but there are some men that Ireland dare not lose in the weeks ahead. Schmidt will pray that Johnny Sexon, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw get through the tournament relatively unscathed.

In some positions, though, Ireland have an embarrassment of wealth. Consider the abundance of talent the back row, for example, where the form of Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander could keep SOB on the bench (I’m at it again!). With the year that’s in it, Lions selection adds another layer of spice to an already fascinating competition in prospect. While Wales and France can never be discounted, Ireland’s main adversaries for the title seem to be Eddie Jones’s England. In extolling Ireland’s championship credentials, we mustn’t forget that Jones’s men have gone over a calendar year without tasting defeat.

Already, that final game on 18th March has the look of a championship decider. England, in Dublin, the day after St Patrick’s Day. It doesn’t get much better than that! How exciting would it be if both sides were going for a Slam to boot? Remember 2003?! Stay tuned. There’s certain to be twists, turns, upsets, and incidents galore. It’s what makes this tournament the colossus that it is. I guess it’s prediction time. Who’ll win the title, then? It’s a tough one this year. Do I go with heart or head? Who am I kidding. Heart wins every time. Ireland!!

P.S. Although I didn’t stay up to watch it, I was sorry to hear that Carl Frampton lost his title last night. I know Carl will be devastated to relinquish his unbeaten record, but all great champions come back from defeat even stronger. What a perfect opportunity to show, once and for all, that he belongs in the pantheon of greats. We haven’t heard the last of Carl Frampton!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Hoops341 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAviva_Stadium_from_North_Stand.jpg

 

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

For Axel, they stood up and fought!

As expected, it was a match brimming with emotion. It’s cliched to talk about blood, sweat and tears. But all three elements were abundantly obvious in Thomond Park yesterday. Of course the occasion was poignant and sombre. Paradoxically though, there was something incredibly joyous about yesterday afternoon, a celebration of life in all its bizarre complexity. I wasn’t at Thomond Park-I actually watched the game on my laptop through Sky Go-but I don’t think you had to be there to appreciate the beauty and poignancy of Munster’s epic win over a fancied Glasgow side, battered mercilessly by an unrelenting force of nature.

They came in their droves to honour Axel and pay tribute in the only way these fine rugby folk know. What they got was fantastic and memorable. Way better than any of us had imagined. There are special moments in life and wonderful moments in sport. What transpired in Limerick yesterday was one of those divine moments. The 26,500 lucky souls who witnessed it will surely remember it for the rest of their lives. One to tell the grandchildren about. How I wish I’d been there. Munster’s brilliant supporters said goodbye to a legend. One of their own. They also saw the re-emergence of their side as Champions Cup giants.

We wondered beforehand how they’d fare. How would the players cope with the magnitude and emotion of the occasion? Munster’s players only buried their coach on Friday and were expected somehow to play one of the biggest games of their season yesterday. How was that possible? I ventured during the week that a match was the best thing for them, but I wasn’t sure if I was right. From the kick off yesterday, I knew. We all knew. This was a different Munster, a profoundly different animal from anything we’d seen these last few seasons. From the first whistle, there was an intensity about the men in red that laid down the ultimate marker. Ferocious at the breakdown, monumentally aggressive in defence and their forwards hunting the ball with obsessive determination. “We’re not going to be beaten today. It doesn’t matter what you do, we’re not going to let you out of here with anything.” You can imagine the impassioned battle cries before the game. Defeat simply wasn’t an option.

It reminded me of 2007 and Ireland’s historic victory over England at Croke Park. Given the symbolism and cultural/historical significance of the occasion, Ireland’s players couldn’t countenance defeat at the hands of the old enemy. Losing would have been too much to bear. Guys like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell have spoken passionately about the responsibility the players felt that day nine years go. It was one of those matches where they just had to deliver-failure wasn’t an option. And deliver they did. England were emphatically routed 43-13 in one of the finest performances of the Eddie O’Sullivan era. That was another emotive and unique occasion. The pre-match anthems were immaculately respected and heartily sung in equal measure. After an emotional build-up, the players and fans delivered together. As one, in complete unison. We were extremely proud to be Irish that day; it was one of the great rugby days. I’m sure the hordes of rugby pilgrims at Thomond Park were proud to be Munster men yesterday.

Typical of Ireland’s romantic province, they did it the hard way. Of course they did. This is Munster! We all remember the great wins against the odds, the “miracle match” against Gloucester in 2003 the most famous. Well, we had another miracle yesterday. Despite Munster’s magnificent start, the Thomond Park men were cast into the abyss after only 20 minutes, with Keith Earls sent off for a tip tackle on Glasgow hooker, Fraser Brown. Irrespective of whether you agree with the decision-I actually think the referee was spot on and fair play to Jerome Garces for refusing to be swayed by emotion-Earls’s red card seemed a calamity for Munster. And yet their performance never dipped. If anything, Earls’s misfortune inspired  his side to even greater heights. Remarkably, an effort that was already superlative, got even better.

Munster’s defensive effort was a joy to behold; it was simply marvellous. The Thomond men didn’t concede an inch to the Warriors all afternoon. What really impressed, though, was the shape and perseverance of the Munster attack. The hosts kept going and didn’t let the small matter of Glasgow’s numerical advantage impede their efforts. With a man down, teams often retreat into their shell in an attempt to maintain their lead and hold out. Not Munster. These guys don’t know the meaning of the word retreat.

Special mention must go to skipper, Peter O’Mahony. The Irish flanker was simply immense yesterday. It was noticeable how Munster’s performance only dipped slightly in the last 20 minutes when Glasgow got over for a brace of consolation tries. O’Mahony, still regaining match fitness after his horrendous injury, was called ashore on 61 minutes. The timing of Glasgow’s mini-revival wasn’t a coincidence! Sometimes you only appreciate the true worth of a player when they’re absent. I also thought hooker Niall Scannell had a superb game-a poor early overthrow notwithstanding. It’s unfair to single anyone out, though. They were all outstanding, to a man. Munster’s players gave every inch of their souls with this inspired performance.

It seems perverse to say it, but the tragic circumstances of last week have revived something in Munster. A latent passion that’s been missing for a while. As a city, Limerick suffered badly in the recession. This downturn has been reflected inevitably in Munster attendances. In recent seasons, crowds have been down and the decibel levels much reduced from the halcyon days. We all remember the rampaging red army touring Europe in their thousands. It was the European Cup’s first love affair: Munster and their wonderful fans. The empty Thomond terraces of recent times were an incongruous sight in comparison. Yesterday felt like the good old days. A capacity crowd, a cacophony of sound, flags and banners fluttering in the wind. A wonderful sight. It’s cruelly ironic, but Foley’s tragic, premature passing could act as a catalyst for a Munster revival. It seems wrong to think in such terms. It would be marvellous if yesterday’s heroics could be sustained, though.

Irish rugby needs Munster. The Champions Cup needs Munster. Sport needs Munster. Europe hasn’t been the same without the red army. While Lansdowne Road is the undisputed home of Irish rugby, its soul has always been in Limerick. This ultimate rugby town is the embodiment of the sport’s values. And Limerick people are rightly proud of the egalitarian way they promote rugby’s traditions. In Limerick, rugby is the game of the people and players have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with their fans in this great city.

It’s strange how tragedy often reveals character in a way the mundane and prosaic routines of everyday life cannot. Humanity, empathy and compassion often announce themselves resoundingly in a crisis. In tough times, we see the very best of mankind. The way in which the rugby community has rallied around the Foley family says much about the values of the sport. Professionalism may have eroded some of rugby’s ethos, but the essence of it remains intact. For that, we should all be extremely proud and grateful. We have seen its importance time and again in the past week. I’m not sure if it was planned or spontaneous but following yesterday’s game, the players formed a huddle and sang the Munster anthem, “Stand Up and Fight.” The huddle included Anthony’s sons, Dan and Tony. It was a lovely gesture. A rugby match can only be a small consolation in the midst of any human tragedy, but as a tribute to a great rugby man, yesterday’s game was undoubtedly something special. Another miracle match. It might sound a bit trite to say it, but I’m going to anyway. A true Munster giant was looking down filled with pride. Rest in peace, Anthony Foley. Munster legend and hero.

‘Stan’ up an’ fight until you hear de bell,
Stan’ toe to toe, trade blow fer blow,
Keep punchin’ till you make yer punches tell,
Show dat crowd watcher know!
Until you hear dat bell, dat final bell,
Stan’ up an’ fight like hell!’

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

The Fall of Olympia

I doubt it’s escaped your notice, but the Olympic Games have just concluded in typically sun-kissed Rio de Janeiro. Depending on your perspective or predisposition, the Games were either a marvellous success or a shameful manifestation of the worst excesses of modern sport. Take your pick. I must concede I’ve rather fallen out of love with the Olympics. Like most of us, I grew up with the Games as a constant backdrop to seemingly endless childhood summers. Rose-tinted recollections of Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, and Wayne McCullough are permanently etched in my mind’s eye. The Olympics, with its fabled champions of a bygone era, were superb-or at least they seemed to be. Elite sport combined with mesmerising, hypnotic spectacle. It was one hell of a combination, transfixing sports fans once every four years. Even the poor relation (the infinitely less prestigious Winter Olympics) was worth a butcher’s. Bob sleighing, ice-hockey, and Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards. Ah, the memories!

I didn’t see much of it this time. At least, nothing of any note. I might have grabbed a few of rounds of boxing featuring two blokes I hadn’t heard of (the lack of headgear still looks weird to me). But that’s about it. There wasn’t anything else. Nada. Granted, the time difference didn’t help, but I’m not sure it would have mattered if the Olympics was happening across the street. It doesn’t interest me. Like Wimbledon or Formula 1, The Olympics now fall into the category of irrelevance for me. Yes all are massive events, but I no longer see any appeal or value in them. What’s the point in watching sport if the action leaves you apathetic at best, bored senseless at worst?

“But you used to like the Olympics”, I hear you yell. What happened? Well, in my view, cheating and the chronic misuse of performance-enhancing drugs have ruined the Olympics. They’ve destroyed the credibility and reputation of the Games. Of course, there’s nothing new here. Cheating in sport has been around since time immemorial and the abuse of drugs has long been a feature of elite competition. But why believe in an event when you know there are probably scores of competitors cheating? It happens at every Games. Detection and sanction may be deferred (if the wily cheats get caught at all), but we all know it’s going on. History confirms as much. The trouble is: cheating destroys the illusion. Much like when a magician reveals his methodology, their aura disappears. There isn’t the same interest when you know how the trick is done.

I’m revealing my age again, but I’m old enough to remember Ben Johnson. For those of a modern vintage, Johnson was the golden boy of the 100 metres; the king of track-and-field athletics. In Seoul ’88, Johnson was the poster boy, the Usain Bolt of his generation, the biggest name in sprinting. A real superstar. True to form, Johnson romped home in the 100m final, leaving a trail of competitors in his wake, Lewis and Christie included. A new world record was clocked by the superstar, a breathtaking 9.79 seconds. The trouble was, Johnson was cheating. Three days after the final, he was disqualified after irregularities were found in blood and urine samples. The Canadian sprinter was subsequently stripped of his gold medal, with Lewis promoted to champion in his stead. A remarkable turn of events that lifted the lid on the use of anabolic steroids in sport. A line in the sand? Surely, such a high-profile case inspired change and eradicated the cheats? Alas not. Cheating has continued and the Games regularly tarnished.

That’s not to say that the IOC hasn’t attempted to come to grips with the problem. The establishment of WADA in 1999 created a coherent mechanism for stamping out doping in sport. And the anti-doping body has achieved a measure of success. However, cheats are still regularly unmasked and athletes are failing tests. The heartfelt denials are meaningless. Lance Armstrong was the undisputed superstar of cycling until he finally came clean, so to speak. Cheating blights the Olympics, casting an ugly stain on the Games. The unmasking often happens years after the conclusion of competitive action, but that fact shouldn’t dim our indignation. Consider this. The Telegraph reported recently that in excess of 60 competitors from London 2012 might have been doping. The allegations stem  from retesting of athletes’ samples; with 23 competitors affected by the results- 39 athletes having already had results annulled from the London games. And London was supposed to be the most successful Olympics of all-time?

I have no hard evidence to support my assertion, but I believe the vast majority of athletes are clean. However, the reputation of the Olympics will suffer until the doping issue is systematically and permanently addressed. Of course cheating isn’t the only issue to afflict the Olympics. Ticket pricing in Rio seems to have gone awry-the sight of empty venues didn’t help the spectacle. Many also felt the judging of the boxing competition at times left a lot to be desired.  Such allegations hardly bolster public confidence. Assessing boxing matches is undoubtedly a highly subjective business. That said, it’s unfortunate so many observers were dissatisfied with boxing results. Outside the competitive arena, the public arrest of 71-year old Irish official Pat Hickey in a bathrobe was as unedifying as it was shocking.  So what of the future? No doubt the Olympic Games will continue, but it’s getting harder to argue the case for sustainability. The fact is the Games are typically loss making enterprises for the host nations, and the only tangible Olympic legacy  is often debt. It can even be argued that it’s unethical for troubled economies to spend hundreds of millions on a glorified circus. The modern Games are something of an anachronism and debate rages regarding how they will evolve. My view? While giddy observers are revelling in talk of medal tables and closing ceremonies, I’m just glad it’s over. Now the circus has left town, real sport can resume.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest

I woke early on Saturday to the sad news, news we were expecting, but no less awful for that. Muhammad Ali is gone. The most revered sportsman of all time. The Greatest. Despite having spent the last thirty years being ravaged by the debilitating condition that is Parkinson’s Disease, his passing still comes as a shock. Isn’t that the way it always works, though? Somehow, regardless of the relentless inevitability of death, we don’t expect our heroes to die. No matter how many times it happens, we find it hard to accept the mortality of heroic and iconic people.

It’s part of the human condition. Each of us are programmed to view our heroes as transcendent, quasi-immortal figures. Even the grim certainty of death is unable to penetrate this cruel illusion. Such deception of the mind is especially common with individuals as iconic as Ali. We just can’t accept they’re gone. It doesn’t seem right, plausible even, that someone so superhuman and powerful is as mortal as the rest of us. Even when we’re confronted with inescapable evidence of their fragility, as we had been  through Ali’s cruel, chronic illness, we find it difficult to accept the merciless truth. I suppose this syndrome is one of the reasons people still occasionally see Elvis in chip shops. Heroes just aren’t supposed to leave us. And that’s why it devastates us when they do.

I’m too young to remember Muhammad Ali fight. Instead, I came to him through my father. My Dad is the biggest Ali fan imaginable, Muhammad Ali is his all-time hero. Like many of that generation, Dad seemed to regard Ali as the personification of sporting perfection. Therefore, I grew up with stories of the legend. The iconic fights, the trash talk, the peerless record of achievement. As a young lad, I heard about Ali’s brutal three fights with Joe Frazier and of course the big daddy of them all: the Rumble in the Jungle when Ali dethroned the mammoth George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title. The Rumble intrigued me the most. Forget the amiable figure with the grill. Foreman was an utterly terrifying pugilist in 1974. My Dad would regale me with stories of this gigantic, intimidating man who seemed virtually indestructible.  And yet the immovable object was indeed defeated, Ali employing his controversial and innovative “Rope-a-Dope” strategy to fell the hitherto unbeaten Foreman. I subsequently watched the fight myself in later years, and the Rumble ingrained the Ali legend in my mind.

When I discovered more about the man, though, what really interested me was his life outside the ring. I’ve always been fascinated by Ali’s activism; the name change, his strident opposition to racism in all its ugly forms, and his courageous refusal to be conscripted into the Vietnam War. For me, these convictions and crusades truly illuminate Ali the man. His conscientious objection to  Vietnam, moreover, defined Ali’s career as much as anything else. His opposition to the controversial war cost Ali three years of championship bouts at a time when he was entering the peak of his athletic powers. The enforced sabbatical undoubtedly had a detrimental effect on the ascendant star. How good would Ali have been otherwise? It’s a sobering question! That Ali came back so spectacularly from this fighting exile to enjoy the most celebrated moments of his career in the 1970s tells us all we need to know about this remarkable man.

What about Ali the campaigner? Societal achievement can be hard to quantify, but the champion arguably did more for African-American rights and equality than any other individual. Long before Barack Obama, Ali was often a minority voice in the wilderness, shining a light on America’s inequalities and providing a vision of pride, integrity, and achievement to which millions of African-Americans could aspire. The champion had his faults, but I think it’s difficult for the modern mind to appreciate just how courageous and prescient Ali’s fearless stance against racism was. Of course one can be churlish and suggest that the sometimes vitriolic nature of Ali’s activism actually fostered division, but this view fundamentally misses the point. In becoming a global hero to millions of people of every class, colour, and creed, Ali promoted an inclusiveness that transcended petty human division. Ali’s mass appeal, in fact, helped eradicate prejudice in a way that legions of elected representatives can only dream of. And his vocal, unapologetic opposition to racism and inequality paved the way for the integrated American society millions take for granted today. This inspiration was felt throughout the world. That is Muhammad Ali’s lasting legacy, as far as I’m concerned. 

In sporting terms,  Ali boasted an aura and charisma that matched his supremely electrifying talent. Many have since imitated, but no-one has come close to generating the box office appeal so effortlessly exuded by the legendary  fighter. Boxers like Chris Eubank and Naseem Hamed attempted to captivate the sporting public with a crude simulation of Ali’s theatrics, but their performances were less than convincing. When it came to charisma, charm, and humour, there was only one Muhammad Ali. If illness hadn’t reduced him so savagely, this man could have done anything. Movie star, lecturer, President, who knows what he might have been if Parkinson’s Disease hadn’t intervened? I think that sense of loss one of the reasons Ali’s illness and death are so galling. We know we’ll never see his like again.

As if all that wasn’t enough, any fair summation of the man must also account for his humanity and character. For all Ali’s unprecedented exploits in the ring, the three-time Heavyweight Champion’s later years proclaimed him as a universal role model who set the bravest of examples. The proud and dignified manner in which the great man handled his illness speaks volumes for Ali’s character: he had integrity, fortitude, and humility in abundance. How ironic that Parkinson’s robbed him of that priceless ability to speak out, to elucidate his thoughts in the articulate way we were used to. In a strange way, though, Ali’s more muted appearances in recent years highlighted  the bravery and humanity of the man in a way that words simply cannot capture. Sometimes there are just no words capable of defining the human spirit. It’s horrible to think that any person should suffer the cruel symptoms inflicted by a degenerative disease like Parkinson’s. Nevertheless, patients of this cruel illness-and others like it-couldn’t have had a better advocate and role model to highlight their suffering. The great man has gone. How sad we’ve finally lost him. He has left us with a tremendous legacy, though. Muhammad Ali was the greatest. In more ways than one.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey