Paralympics is sport in its purest form
Western People 31.8.2021
In my senior years, sport is a great companion. The passive rather than the active version, I hasten to add. Watching it on television, rather than actually togging out. And while all sports have their seasons, the ones I really enjoy are those that I played myself: Gaelic football, soccer, rugby and golf.
While I played them on a scale that stretches from badly to very badly, what matters is that once you play a sport, you appreciate the actual skill involved. Watching Rory McIlroy trying to extricate himself from a fried-egg lie in a pot bunker – conscious of my own personal history of multiple hacks just to succeed in getting the ball out of the sand – gives an added interest to a professional golfer’s (mostly) unerring ability to leave the ball beside the hole. (And to enjoy a surreptitious delight when golf (as it does) humbles even the greatest, like Tiger Woods.)
Watching multiple sports also gives a sense of the essence of sport, the struggle to overcome whatever sporting or other demons pickle our lives. Even with team sports, it’s personal. A test mainly of character and resilience. Edging yourself step by step to possible greatness. Or, for the rest, eventually seeing the writing on the wall as unrealised ambitions of greatness disappear over the horizon and we accept the wisdom of hanging up our boots and reconciling ourselves to watching sport on television.
Paralympians, now competing in the Tokyo Paralympics, are a different matter entirely. Their task is not just to compete at the highest level possible but to struggle past greater challenges than most as they cope with a range of disabilities. To the rest of us, it seems an impossible task and yet their triumphs delight at an instinctive level because we sense that, in a world of sporting millionaires, cheats and drug-users, they bring us to the very essence of sport and the character and resilience it inspires at its best.
Because the terrible truth is that sport is now a debased currency. I find it impossible to watch the Tour de France, once cycling’s premier test, because of the shadow thrown on that event and cycling in general by multiple winner and cheat, Lance Armstrong. Indeed, the whole professional cycling experience seems to be a virtual pharmacy on wheels.
I enjoy soccer, especially when it’s played at the highest levels but it was hard to take England’s progress to the recent final of Euro 2020 when the semi-final against Denmark was won by Raheem Sterling’s unsporting dive to earn a penalty in extra time. What truly exacerbated the resultant injustice was the failure of English football analysts with their elevated opinion of themselves to name that truth.
But then we’re used to cheating at soccer, most famously Diego Maradona’s handball in the 1986 World Cup which undid the English challenge and which was followed by an epidemic of national (English) outrage. Now Harry Kane, the English captain, known as an expert in simulation (or faking), is not just admired for that particular skill-set but apparently valued at £150 or so million on the English premiership market.
Despite the game efforts of the football authorities through the introduction of the VAR technology, whereby television replays are immediately made available to referees in two critical contexts – whether a player should be sent off or a penalty awarded – I suspect that human ingenuity will no doubt triumph in the end.
The truth is that simulation is now a reality in many sports, including Gaelic football. A clash between players and one falls theatrically to the ground writhing in agony. The team doctor rushes to the victim pole-axed on the ground. His colleagues descend on the referee, pressing their case for a yellow or a black or preferably a red card for his assailant. Gradually the victim picks himself up off the ground, gives a few hesitant steps ‘to run off’ the injury and seconds later he’s back in business, as fit as the proverbial whistle.
Referees now casually incorporate the possibility of simulation into their calculations as unfortunately Cork referee did when Eoghan McLoughlin collapsed to the ground after an incident with Dublin’s John Small. Strangely, the referee ignored the altercation and waved play on. Clearly in his view the exchange didn’t merit a card of any description though the television cameras showed that a red was indeed merited. But the Mayo players drawing his attention to it may well have been interpreted by him as an indication that they knew that Small was already on a yellow card.
Some might rush to criticise the referee but the truth was that the growing practice of faking injury contributes to referees suspecting that players are engaging in simulation, even though in this case that was not happening, as indeed most people could see.
Rugby could give an example here. While Gaelic players are happy to harangue a referee and pressurise him by ‘getting in his face’, in rugby only the team captain can approach a referee.
My own tuppence-worth is that so much is happening on the field of play in Gaelic football, especially in crucial games, and so much theatricality is in play that major semi-finals and finals warrant not just one referee but two. Already, experienced referees are acting as linesmen and are in constant radio contact with the referee. That needs to be developed more, including some version of VAR where crucial incidents can be viewed just after they happen.
Not that cheating can ever be erased from sport. Take golf, which prides itself on being the only sport where players call penalties on themselves if the club accidentally disturbs the ball. Yes, but what about the hooky handicaps and the illicit ways of protecting them? Don’t go there.
Meanwhile, sport offers itself in the Paralympics as the closest we’ll ever get to the real thing, the triumph of honest endeavour and the character to survive overwhelming odds – a potent mix that brings the best in sport.