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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Katie Taylor: Boxer, Star, Hero

The viewing figures won't have been impressive, due to the time difference, but the column inches will.  Katie Taylor is again the champion of the world, Ireland's golden girl, and a beacon of hope for us all in a time of economic gloom.

Ten weeks out from London 2012, she has assured her passage to sport's centrepiece not only as the undisputed No. 1 in her weight division, but also as a sports star with increasing global recognition, and more importantly, undoubted respect.  The next three months promise much for Taylor, but her greatest achievement cannot be quantified in medals or trinkets or trophies or even in the adulation of a nation.

Pic: Irish Sports Art

It's less than three years since it was announced that Taylor, and other women boxers, would have the chance to fight for gold in London and the reaction was mixed, at best.  This article from that time shows that there was opposition, within the sport, and ahead of it's return to the Games (women boxed non-competitively in St. Louis in 1904), I would expect many international news outlets to run pieces asking 'is it right?' and 'should women box?' etc.

But not in Ireland.

Here, Katie Taylor has single-handedly made women's boxing an accepted, if not yet a mainstream sport.  Young girls throughout Ireland lace up in clubs each week, inspired by a bone fide hero, and our collective print and broadcast media are enamoured with the woman that inspired them.  Her qualification for the Games was a lead news story on at least one national radio station this week, and not just in the sports bulletins - it is the same today.  When London arrives, we will watch in great numbers and we will cheer Katie on.  We will hope and pray for gold, and undoubtedly welcome her back from London with a gathering previously only seen for the likes of McGuigan, Roche and our soccer stars.

For all Irish people, Katie has answered the question, 'should women box', with a resounding yes.  She's won that argument as convincingly as most of her fights within the ring.  When her skills are witnessed by the wider world in London, I'd wager that she'll convince many more that the IOC were correct in their decision three years ago, and come 2016 the hubbub will be no more.  It's by no means an achievement to rival that of Emmeline Pankhurst, but for women's sport, London will see another barrier broken, with our own golden girl leading the way.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Joe Frazier RIP

With today’s untimely death of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, sport itself has lost a true warrior, and one of the most fearsome competitors of all-time.  The 67-year-old has passed away after succumbing to liver cancer overnight.

As a fighter, Frazier had it all.  An Olympic Champion in 1964, he could box as well as brawl, a quality which would define much of his later career.  Frazier’s professional record would be impressive with wins over Muhammad Ali, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavera and Buster Mathis.  His only defeats came twice each to George Foreman and Ali.

Frazier’s battles with ‘The Greatest’ define his career, even though that is something he himself would not be pleased with.  He often spoke of their ongoing animosity, long after their in-ring battles concluded.  Famously, in 1996, after Ali lit the Olympic Torch in Atlanta, Frazier remarked that he wanted to push his rival into the flame.

They first clashed in New York in 1971.  With both men undefeated World Champions at this point, it was the ‘Fight of the Century’ and Frazier would inflict upon Ali the most notable loss of his life, knocking him down in the 15thround en route to a points win.  Ali would win their second contest three years later before the final contest in their trilogy.

The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ is simply 14 rounds of drama.  While Joe Frazier would end up the loser on that balmy morning, above all others this contest would highlight his strongest quality, that enduring spirit.  Even when his eyes were swollen shut, and when his opponent’s jabs would have crushed the will of a weaker man, Frazier kept coming forward and kept fighting on in a brutal war.  Make no mistake; but for the intervention of his trainer Eddie Futch, Frazier would have fought that 15th round, if given the chance, despite the likely disastrous consequences.  It was the event that would shape his very existence for the next 36 years, and in many ways he came across as bitter as a result, but one must remember the disgusting insults levied at him by his opponent in the previous five years.

Ironically, Muhammad Ali has led the tributes to Frazier today, saying “the world has lost a great champion” and that he will “always remember Joe with respect and admiration.”  All boxing fans will do the same – he may have been the third best heavyweight of his era, but he would have been the very best of most decades, and is likely in the top-ten heavyweights of all-time.

Today’s tributes do not match the outpouring of grief which will likely come when his great rival passes away.  However, that love and respect for Ali might just be due to Frazier.  The Greatest only has that title because he was tested and because he had to overcome so many obstacles, none tougher than the man from Philadelphia.

If Muhammad Ali is “King of the World”, then Joe Frazier did more than anyone else to put that crown upon his head.  It’s not the legacy he wanted, or even one he deserved, but it’s enough to cement his place in boxing folklore forever. 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

More Glum Than Glee-ful After Irish Jibes

We may be well into the 21st Century, but this week Ireland is being served an hour of television which appears to have come from the Dark Ages.  Glee is generally regarded as enlightened, hip and forward-thinking, but I’ve found the way it portrays my native land in its latest episode to be either negligent insensitivity or wilful stereotyping.

The latest example of Oirishness, entitled Pot O’Gold aired on Sky One tonight (Thursday) and will appear on TV3 this coming Saturday.  It’s likely going to resonate in this part of the world as it marks the series debut of Damian McGinty, a Derry native who won his spot in the series on a reality TV show.  He plays Rory Flanagan, a newly-arrived exchange student whose brogue is a step removed from Darby O’Gill and has a dress sense taken straight from Emerald City.

Feel free to check off the expected Oirish labels as I go – Rory’s accent, to begin with, was last heard when Cork featured in that episode of Heroes.  The dim Brittany believes he is a leprechaun, and offers her ‘pot of gold’ in exchange for three wishes, one of which involves Lucky Charms cereal.  He’s forced to defend U2, he’s called a potato-eater and even sings Kermit’s Bein’ Green because, guess what, that’s the colour he wears throughout the episode (until the final scene, which features somewhat of a redemption, signified by a new red ensamble).  Watch out for a re-appearance of Seamus McFly’s hat early on as well, among a host of other damning props, insults, jibes and digs all aimed at the Irish nation.  There were no 'tops of the morning' but make no mistake, subversion and irony were not at work here.  This hour of television can be classed as either laziness or casual racism, and was as subtle as a kick in the balls.

Glee is not the only television show to denigrate Ireland in this way in recent times.  Oirishness did not die with The Quiet Man as alcoholics showed in Family Guy, while The Simpsons tried and failed to show a more modern Ireland in In The Name of the Grandfather.  Obama became O’Bama when he visited Moneygall, but it’s not just the Americans who are guilty – Eastenders caused plenty of offence with a trio of Irish-based episodes in 1997 and from personal experience, sweeping generalisations are a regular feature of sports punditry here too.

Having said all this, I genuinely have great time for some aspects of Glee, especially the inclusiveness that it has often shown.  The show has won Gay Media awards for the way in which it portrays homosexuals, and for the way straight characters engage with gay ones.  I’ve also been impressed with the way in which those with physical and (especially) intellectual disabilities are central and equal at McKinley High.  The crude representation of Irish people in this episode belies this, but is not excused as a result.

Great strides have been made in American race-relations in recent years but there is room for further improvement.  Washington DC is home to an African American President, but also a team called the Redskins.  Across the land, sport teams are referred to as Chiefs and Braves and Indians and Seminoles and the Fighting Irish.  Notre Dame's logo is even of a leprechaun in a fist-fight.  Casual racism can become more than that - there is still a lack of black Quarterbacks and coaches, and it’s only eight years since Rush Limbaugh claimed NFL Quarterback Donovan McNabb got an easy ride because of the colour of his skin.  This episode of Glee has provoked little discussion stateside, at least in these terms, so I expect little rancour to emerge there, but in its own way this silence is just as troubling.

I don’t know why it is, but while racism is unacceptable in the Western world, mild forms of it exist in our media to this day.  Sometimes, in Crash or Confederate States of America a spotlight is shone on the problem, but more often than not viewers are served tripe such as Pot O’Gold.  I hope it does not represent the true thinking of those who tune in, but when such stereotyping is so regular, one must wonder why nothing is done.  Are people blind to racism because a colour is not involved?  Is it really acceptable to call an Irishman a potato-eater on television in 2011, 160 years after the Great Famine?  Does society truly tolerate this, because I know that I do not.  In the words of Santana Lopez, in this very show: “It’s mean, it’s bullying and I won’t accept it.”

I look forward to seeing what Irish critics and viewers make of it all.  Tune in to one of it’s many airings in the coming days and form your own opinion. Tweet me on @gavingrace or leave a comment below.


Thanks to Gerard Cunningham for urging me to write this post, and giving me a couple of ideas for it as well.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Presidential Election Shows TV Still Key In Internet Age

The modern-day world may be one of interconnectivity, of social media and of instant communication, but the 2011 Presidential election has shown that old-style television is still king.

Our case study today is Sean Gallagher, the man who nearly was.  His performance, finishing second in this election, is remarkable in and of itself.  While not necessarily independent, he lacked a party machine for canvassing etc.  He had no posters (at least not on lamp posts) and still was able to get his name out there, thanks primarily to his involvement in the likes of Dragons Den.  He entered the race as a personality, and people warmed to the familiar face.  For a while, at least.

As much as television gave Gallagher a boost, it also took him down.  Monday’s dramatic television debate saw his debate unravel before the nation.  He panicked, froze and showed the people that he is not Presidential, not according to the people of Ireland who left him in droves.  28% of the electorate changedtheir first preference this week, and of those 58% deserted Sean Gallagher.  That is 16.2% of those who voted –he lost out by 11.1%.

Twitter, in particular, is a fantastic way to experience news events, elections chief among them.  Those who followed #aras11 took part in critical discussion, humorous conversation and shared links to some of the most informative (and sometimes ridiculous) columns.  Voters engaged with candidates and their teams in a way that happens on the ground, but not in such an obvious or easy fashion.

However, while twitter is the internet’s brightest point, the reality is it does not have the mass reach of other media.  As of 5:30 on count day, 3800 people had tweeted using the #aras11 hashtag, taking part in this national conversation.  But on Monday night, 900,000 watched the campaign’s most infamous moment in the Frontline studio.  That’s half the amount of total voters.

There are few bigger advocates of twitter than myself, and this is not intended to take anything away from the medium.  However, despite the modern world in which we live, television has again shown it’s hold and power in Ireland.  More than anything else, it can capture, retain and influence the general public.  Ireland is now multi-cultural, modern and the internet is at the fore of our future, but our people remain entrapped by the old reliable television.  This may be 2011, but the story of this Presidential election is an old-style tale. 
In one foul swoop a dragon was slayed and a President crowned, while we all tuned in.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Dan Wheldon RIP

In May of this year, Dan Wheldon was the beneficiary of one of motorsport's most dramatic finishes.

Today, the 33-year-old father of two died in a crash while competing in Las Vegas.

Motorsport.  You never know what's around the corner.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Welsh Loss Set To Haunt Ireland's Greatest Ever Players

Losing’s a bitch.  Losing out on what is probably your last chance must be ten times worse.

As fans of the Irish rugby team, today we hurt.  This morning was a crushing disappointment that we feel even more because it was unexpected, and because of the euphoric highs that preceded it.  Yet as fans, we will have another day, many more in fact.  The Irish people will cheer for us in World Cups in 2015, 2019, 2023 and so on.  Four years is a long time, but time does pass.

But when that happens, things change.  Players get old, some of them too old.  2015 will probably be a bridge to far for the likes of Paul O’Connell, Rory Best, Donnacha O’Callaghan, David Wallace, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll who by then could be mere fans like the rest of us.  That list is not exhaustive – there may be more, but it may also be the case that some of those men hang on.  I imagine the manner of today’s defeat, and the way it robbed Ireland’s stars of a swansong on the global stage will perhaps induce second thoughts and a drive to continue.

Some will go however, perhaps not straight away, but they will.  The Ireland team of the 2012 and 2013 Six Nations will look very different to the all-too-familiar squad of recent times.  It’s still too soon for a post-mortem, when we don’t even know who is leaving, but when change is most certainly coming, one thing has to be said – today is the most disappointing day any one of them will have experienced in an Irish jersey.
We have lost Grand Slam deciders, blown chances to beat Southern Hemisphere giants, even lost Quarter Finals before today.  However on virtually all of those occasions Ireland were underdogs, valiant battlers who attempted to stave off defeat.  Today, that was not the case.  We were a team poised to deliver the sport’s finest hour.  Take into account the brilliance of the win over Australia, and the economic circumstances in which this country finds itself, and today’s defeat is even more heartbreaking.  More so than on virtually any other occasion, today we knew that victory was tangible and realistic.  We could taste success, we could dream of a final, and yet it never came.

 Perhaps it was nerves.  Perhaps it was a poor tactical performace.  Perhaps it was plain bad luck.  No matter really, because it was most certainly the most gut-wrenching defeat for an Ireland rugby team in many a year.  Look at Brian O’Driscoll’s face in the post-match press conference.  In a word, it is grey.  He knows it as much as anyone.  After the win over Australia, I wrote that the victory was an opportunity that had to be grasped.  Today was the chance to do that and it was not taken.  I don’t say that as a criticism – no one man could have tried harder – but as a fact.  That’s what hurts most of all.

An opportunity like today might not come for another twenty or thirty years.  Then again, it could come in four, but even then that will too far away for some of the golden generation.  We laud then.  We thank them.  We appreciate their efforts, toast their successes and today, of all days, we share the pain of their defeats. 

More of them spoiled the homecoming of World champions and slayed the old enemy all in the one day.

Many of these players made what once seemed unobtainable the norm.  They came to the cusp of success, before falling short and trying once more.

Yet more were humiliated on the biggest stage of all, and still returned.

They showed the best of a 21st Century Ireland – our maturity, our facilities, our tenacity and the pride we have of this nation – in one of the greatest sporting days of recent years.

They gave us a day the likes of which comes once in every 61 years.

Virtually all of them did the unthinkable just three weeks ago against Australia - in a very different way, what happened today was equally unthinkable.

This is not a post-mortem, but they are the achievements of the Irish national rugby team 2000-2011.  

Today marks the end of an era.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Modest Kidney A Man Worth Hailing

It’s a landmark that means little, but last week marked the fourth anniversary of one of my bigger breaks in radio.  I joined a national station, as a stringer, and for around a year I attended sporting events from Sligo to Cork, doing interviews and vox pops and compiling reports.

My first assignment came at an unremarkable Magners League game between Munster and the Scarlets at Musgrave Park in September 2007.  As is custom, I interviewed the winning coach after the match, and as well as getting his views on another Munster win, I decided to ask him about the story du jour in Irish rugby; the then-ongoing failure of Ireland at the Rugby World Cup in France.

The reply, in a word, was unremarkable.

“You’d have sympathy for all of them.  They’ve all burst their traps to put everything in place and, you know, it’s very disappointing the way it’s working out for them.”

“There’ll be no one more disappointed than the players and the management themselves.”

What makes those remarks relevant today, is that the man who uttered those words is the individual most responsible for the turnaround in the national team’s fortunes in the intervening four years.

I wonder when he spoke those words in the Dolphin Clubhouse in Musgrave Park, whether Declan Kidney thought for a moment that he could be best-suited to benefit from Ireland’s misfortune.  Would he have wished for it to happen?  No, I’m sure, but the Heineken Cup winning coach would have known that he would be a strong contender to take over the position in the event of Eddie O’Sullivan’s departure.  He could have stoked the fire, told me what he would have done differently, why things were going wrong.  He could have increased the pressure on O’Sullivan but he didn’t.  He spoke in generalities, in platitudes.  There was no criticism.  No headline.  Kidney kept his true feelings to himself.  That is how he operates.

Declan Kidney is humble and modest to the point of satire, but his ways do not change.  In his greatest hour, in Cardiff in March of 2009, he declined an invitation to stand with his players as they lifted the Six Nations Trophy.  He is not meek however.  Make no mistake, Declan Kidney is driven, focussed and determined.  This is a man who inspires those around him and without a doubt, has the full respect of those he leads.  Men are not as committed as Ireland were in the win over Australia, unless the fully believe in their cause.  Remember too, when Ireland’s preparations were in crisis after four losses in August, belief was never lost.  Just as there was no catastrophe, there was no delirium when Australia was dispatched.  The result was an opportunity, not an achievement in and of itself.

There’s no doubting, mind you, that Declan Kidney has been lucky.  There’s no Grand Slam if Jones’ penalty travels three yards longer, or if O’Gara doesn’t connect with a late drop goal.  And if Ireland’s defence were to relent late on at Eden Park, then it would be Australia who would have celebrated that night, and South Africa who we would be focussing on now.  But if he is fortunate now then he was fortunate in leading Munster to their success for so long too.  At some stage luck gives way to something more tangible than that, something more permanent.  Class, perhaps.

There’s no man I would rather entrust the hopes of a nation in at this moment in time.  That he is one of our own, that he is modest and self-assured in equal measure; both of these are vital.  Unlike Lefty Gomez, he’s lucky and good in equal measure.  There are question marks about some of his decisions – I’ve raised some myself – but for the first time in our history Ireland have a proven track record of form, an opportunity to shine and a management team to be confident in as we head into a World Cup Quarter Final.  

We dare to dream, as fans and as a nation, but our charges are grounded.  If Saturday goes wrong, we’ll all hurt, but “there’ll be no one more disappointed than the players and the management themselves.”

Monday, 3 October 2011

Always Remember...

An important lesson for all journalists, not least yours truly.  Being first is not always that important.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Podcast - No. 3

I do these sometimes, albeit not enough.

Still, for your ears, here are my thoughts on Ireland v. Italy this Sunday, why Ronan O'Gara is the right man to start...but only for now.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Ireland Must Keep Cool After Oz Wizardry

There’s no doubting that Ireland’s Rugby World Cup win over Australia on Saturday was a monumental event in Irish sporting history.  The first victory over a Southern Hemisphere side in the global competition is the latest in about 6 matches which shower our ‘wonder generation’ of stars in the glory they deserve, and it also has fantastic consequences for the remainder of the competition.

However, is there a danger that Ireland’s sporting media over-stating the win?  Today’s Irish Independent, to cite one example, ranked it at the top of a ‘Top-Five Ireland Rugby Wins of All-Time’ list.  Our grand slam clinching wins of 2009 and 1948 were second and third, ahead of a win over Australia in Dublin in 2006 and the Five Nations win at Twickenham in 1994.  However, in my opinion it doesn’t belong there.

To look at another sport, as an example, the Republic of Ireland’s greatest soccer win, in a World Cup at least, was against Italy at Giants Stadium in 1994.  The 1-0 win in our opening group game could have set up a fantastic odyssey in the USA, but it did not, and now that World Cup is a failure.  If our rugby stars do not capitalise on the win in Auckland Saturday, then the 2011 Rugby World Cup will also be a failure.

We need this win to be a springboard, and not the finished article: a step in the road, and not the destination.  A quarter-final loss to Wales, when we have already proven ourselves to be above their level, would be worse than an insipid defeat to Holland in Orlando in 1994 as it would come in a game where we would rightly be favourites.  And that’s before we even consider a potential defeat against Italy.  Our media need to realise this, and while we rightly celebrate Saturday’s achievement, we must move on, look forward, and dare to dream of more.

The one thing that does please me in all of this, however, is the reaction of the players.  There were scenes of joy following the final whistle, but it was not unbridled.  It was controlled, and refined, and in the interviews the players struck the right tone.  One even called it ‘the start of our World Cup.’  Ronan O’Gara aside (and his situation is unique), emotions were in check.  It was a job done, a column ticked, and there are many more to follow, or so we hope.  And dream.  And pray.  And, just a little, expect.