Centrality of faith in Taylor's life not the big story

Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 01:00

SIDELINE CUT:The importance of faith to athletes is one of the most common themes in sport. Katie Taylor’s religious views are respected but her sporting achievements are what move people, writes KEITH DUGGAN

SO HERE is how the issue of Katie Taylor and faith works on planet earth – or at least on planet Olympics. Yes, there was much ‘squirming’ by sports presenters and journalists when she gave her post-fight interviews at the Excel Arena. But Jesus or Katie Taylor’s views on Him had nothing to do with the discomfort. Nope, the reasons were more banal.

To make things clear: what happens after any Olympic athlete competes is that he or she is guided through a long parade of journalists known as the mixed zone. Television comes first. Radio follows. Poor doomed print is last. It doesn’t matter whether you are Mesempe Theko (one of the Lesotho’s four Olympic athletes) or LeBron James, you have to go through this catwalk.

After Katie Taylor’s fights, every Irish journalist with accreditation was waiting for her. The way the mixed zone works is that each media group has a dedicated little corral so that when Katie Taylor came through, there were at least 30 people packed into a chicken-coop situation, thrusting voice recorders in her general direction and trying to catch a word or two of what she said.

Taylor was brilliant, by the way, after every interview: gracious and funny and politely oblivious to just how undignified, frankly, the gathering in front of her must have looked. Generally, she stopped in front of the print group for three or four minutes – she was warming down fast and her coaches didn’t want her hanging about. Wisely.

So John Waters was correct in his column yesterday: there was a helluva lot of squirming going on there. I can attest that the body heat generated by the Fourth Estate during those moments was intense – and not in a Kathleen Turner/William Hurt kind of way. It was a crush, plain and simple and deadlines loomed at the back of everyone’s mind.

After Katie Taylor’s gold medal fight, for instance, someone recognised that to bring her through the mixed zone would have been catastrophic. Instead, she was whisked straight into a press conference in an air conditioned room in some remote corner of the Excel – which is a huge, charmless airport hanger of a venue. Press conferences are never ideal. The room was crowded and the atmosphere formal.

Again, Katie Taylor handled herself with customary poise and elegance but admitted that she was nervous, joking at one point that she was terrible at interviews and laughing on another occasion when she couldn’t remember the question.

Her mind must have been whirring at that stage: she had just realised her life’s ambition and probably wanted to be with family and friends so she could enjoy it. She alluded to God and to her faith and reiterated her belief that she owed her victory to Him.

Her remarks appeared in several newspapers, including this one.

But, no, there were no detailed questions about Katie Taylor’s faith during her gold medal press conference. There were probably several reasons for this. Time was, as ever, a factor. It was pushing 7pm when the conference ended and after print journalists had made their way to the media room at the far end of the Arena, found a desk at which to sit (blood has been shed) and transcribed the interview, they had about 45 minutes to an hour to write and file their work.

And it is probably true that, in those moments, the importance of God to Katie Taylor was not uppermost in most minds.

When John Waters writes of Taylor’s faith: “There is nothing simple here: such certainty about reality requires long reflection, contemplation and asking,” he is absolutely right. But try telling that to a sub-editor who is explaining, in the cold-chill voice of Michael Noonan in wary mood, that he needs the copy now. I know a fair few of the journalists who covered Katie Taylor’s fights reasonably well but have little idea of their faith. I do know that I heard several of them invoke

His name with beery familiarity when we were directed down a long corridor which proved to be a dead end during that gold medal night.

But the main reason for the lack of emphasis on Katie Taylor’s faith is that for sportswriters and journalists, faith and sport is not that big a deal. When the walls began to crumble on Catholicism in Ireland 15 years ago and was replaced by the citizens’ right to Luxury and Pampering, sport was one of the few areas in Irish life where people still felt it was okay to talk about God.

I won’t ever forget a long conversation with the late Fr Ollie Hughes for a book I wrote on Gaelic games. For decades, Hughes was the energetic force behind the football teams at St Jarlath’s College. He was – and remains – a revered man to several generations of All-Ireland winning ball-players. But by the time we met in the autumn of 2003, he was, like many decent priests, bewildered and he spoke with remarkable candour about the best and worst of St Jarlath’s as a Catholic institution.

And I remember a fascinating afternoon spent in Ravenhill rugby ground sitting in a dank dressing room with Andrew Trimble, the Ulster and Ireland wing, as he explained how he could reconcile his Christianity with his desire to inflict murderous tackles on opposition players.

And anyone who has covered the central Irish sports story of the last decade – the Tyrone Gaelic football team 1998-2012 – would implicitly understand that faith and God is all about that remarkable collection of people. Brian Cody, the most successful GAA manager ever, has spoken about his faith. Nobody blinked. Michael Duignan, the television hurling analyst and former Offaly player, entitled his recent memoir Life, Death and Hurling and wrote with painful honesty about the death of his wife and the importance of faith and spirituality to her. Nobody squirmed.

While the rest of Ireland shopped and skied, the old pillars of faith – belief in an idea, abstinence, sacrifice, spirit – were always alive and well on the Gaelic fields of Ireland and in other sporting fields.

The importance of faith to athletes is one of the most common themes in sport. Any journalist who has covered sport encounters it all the time. This is particularly true in the lonely sports – athletics, rowing, boxing – where the athlete spends hours in their own world, pushing themselves with no team-mates to lean on. Spirituality often goes hand in hand with solitary sporting pursuits.

So when Katie began to thank God for helping her to get where she was on that sunny Thursday evening in London, it was no great surprise. Boxing specialists like Johnny Watterson have been writing about – and championing – Taylor for years. Hearing Katie thanking God was like hearing her thanking Billy Walsh. It is part of who she is.

So maybe for recent converts, Katie Taylor’s serene conviction in God and in a higher calling is something staggering to behold. That can only be a good thing.

I think it is cool that when John Waters sees Katie Taylor now, he sees “a woman inspired by a singular, irreducible idea who as a consequence shines more brightly than gold’.

But hell, who doesn’t see that?

Isn’t that why the streets were crowded with kids wanting to see her?

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