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Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00


McKeever reached heights few of us even aim for

This time it was Kilimanjaro.

Last time it was Gorse Lea on the Isle of Man and the time before that Everest’s K2.

In death, adventurer Ian McKeever joined mountaineer John Delaney, who remains somewhere near the Everest summit with an estimated 150 bodies.

Motorcyclist Derek Brien died during the famous TT races. Three men took choices many of us might like to take if we possessed the courage to do so.

In death they showed how life can be lived whether it’s on the mountains, the shrouded country roads around Douglas or the sea, where Ireland’s top ocean racer Damien Foxall continues to go to work and open-eyed faces the possibility of catastrophe each time.

Through people like McKeever, who was fatally struck by lightning this week, we are given the possibility to live vicariously on the edge and to imagine that we also possess the genetic make-up and the impulse to sever those attachments and comforts that define us as having a safe, cocooned life.

Adventure sports are very often not what you watch for the minute-by-minute thrills, high-twitch fibres or gravity-defying leaps. It’s not about bite-sized mini-dramas unfolding before the first half or an ad break. The attraction of the slow mapping of a cliff face or the trek across a glacier is that it provokes and chides us that the big dreams of a child can be housed in the narrow corridors of an adult and the purpose of having all the hours we have been given is not to always to make them stretch as far and as safely as possible.

The challenge of K2, Kilimanjaro or a Honda Fireblade occasionally reminds us how small our lives have been.

In golf the players scatter to the clubhouse when the hooter is sounded to warn that lightning maybe on its way, the nine iron a perfect conductor at the top of a back swing. Ask Lee Trevino or Ernie Els, who along with a number of professional golfers have been struck and survived.

But where is the warning siren on Kilimanjaro and where do you run near the mountain top at Lava Tower?

In an interview given by McKeever before he travelled to Tanzania before Christmas he observed that, from the top of Everest, everything below looks like a very different place.

Pat Falvey, a veteran of many mountain peaks, used the word “perspective” to describe how McKeever led expeditions with young people, the mountain a metaphor for life with its difficulties, surprises and struggles. The idea, he explained, is never the summit itself but the reaching of it. Nothing is really conquered but, like Livingstone on the Nile, the Brendan Voyage or Cook and the Pacific Islands, the guiding hand is the innate understanding that what they are doing is is right for them.

Not about the finish line

Where the pleasure is tipping close to 200mph along the dry stone walls of a rock in the Irish Sea or hunkering down in a white-out, getting to the finish line may be the goal but not the reason to throw a leg over the machine or strap on the crampons.

Why else embark on a series of record attempts including smashing the Seven Summits Challenge by completing the climbs in 32 days fewer than the previous marks as McKeever did?

Why in 2008 climb Croagh Patrick 35 times in 80 hours or coalesce a crew of like minds to try and row the South Atlantic in under 30 days? Snow blindness and frostbite along the way were, like road burns from a misjudged hairpin, his scars from the most recent spills.

When Foxall fell into the water from his boat on a solo race and was picked up by a passer-by, he understood his fate and life had been decided by astonishing fortune.

McKeever’s luck fell the other way, almost absurdly. Both men you feel would absorb that concept without complicating it with the question why.

State shows scant respect for O'Neill's efforts

Before Christmas the Minister of State for Sport, Michael Ring, acknowledged the contribution of Irish sport’s 500,000 volunteers and presented 11 awards to individuals.

One of the recipients that day was Oliver O’Neill, the father of Darren O’Neill, Ireland’s celebrated boxing captain from the four-medal London 2012 team.

“We see before us today people who have helped nurture young sportsmen and women who have gone on to participate at the Olympic Games,” said the Minister, acknowledging Oliver’s sacrifice.

Sarah O’Connor, chief executive of the Federation of Irish Sport, added some flesh to the praise. “This voluntary investment has been estimated to have an economic value equivalent of somewhere between €350 to €580 million each year,” she noted.

About this time last year Darren took a career break, until the end of the school year, from his temporary teaching job at Donaghmede Holy Trinity Senior National School to prepare for the Olympic Games. When he came home his job – a temporary position and a rolling contract – was gone. Positions came up in the school but he didn’t get the call.

“Man loses job” is no story these days but at the Aviva gig here was the State declaring how it loved its sporting volunteers, Oliver but not necessarily Darren.

As an elite athlete Darren is entitled to funds from the State via the Irish Sports Council’s Carding Scheme but is not permitted to draw the dole.

He expects his funding level to drop this year. That has been the way of 2012 – cuts to sport’s budgets – where Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar made it a virtue that it was less of a trim than he had previously promised.

And so a respected boxing captain is cut loose to face the vagaries of an economic catastrophe.

When Jesse Owens came back from humiliating Hitler at the 1936 Olympics they had him racing against horses for money.

But we don’t do stunts like that in Ireland, do we? It’s just too degrading.

The Olympics wasn't always taken so seriously

All the fuss about Rory McIlroy and Rio 2016: will he or won’t he jump? Will he or won’t he play?

Maybe we should lighten up. More than 100 years ago the first gold medal in golf was won in the Paris Olympics of 1900 by American Charles Sands, while Margaret Abbott won the women’s event.

Abbot was the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal and did so with panache. Standing at 5ft 11in, the imposing 22-year-old Chicago socialite travelled to Paris with her mother, literary editor and novelist Mary Ives Abbott, so that she could study art for the year prior to the games taking place.

Ten women took part in the final nine-hole round, with Abbot confiding to relatives after winning that she thought some of the other competitors miscalculated the nature of the event because all of the French girls turned up to play “in high heels and tight skirts”.

So underwhelmed was Abbott with her gold medal that, when she died in New York in 1955, she did so unaware that the tournament she had won 55 years previously was part of the Olympic Games.

George Lyon won the last gold medal in St Louis 1904. He didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 38 years old and he was 46 when he travelled from Canada to compete.

He swung the club like a cricket bat, prompting a sniffy response from the press. But he beat the 23-year-old US champion Chandler Egan to win and cheerfully accepted the silver trophy by walking down the path to the ceremony on his hands.

Connacht could do with the Berbatov treatment

Connacht playing rugby in recent months makes possible the idea of tasting frustration, sucking it up. They have been contriving to lose matches they could have won and they have been hollowed by the experience.

Spilled passes, offsides and turnovers have conspired and left the team quietly wondering about what god it is they have particularly annoyed.

Recently the Fulham Football Club dressing room were treated to a suggestion for improvement from former Manchester United player Dimitar Berbatov, who probably strained relationships but was determined to make his point.

Berbatov, in what was described as the “T-shirt controversy”, risked the ire of his squad by revealing a “Keep Calm And Pass Me The Ball” slogan on the shirt.

In true footballing style the club played it down as a “non-issue”, the “Keep Calm” part of the exhortation in no way suggesting that the players around him nervously treat the football as a hot potato.

Unlike Connacht, Fulham have won or drawn more than they have lost. Nonetheless, a touch of the Berbatov sentiment might bring some comfort to the Sportsground.

Not such a funny old game after all, survey reveals

The recent magazine survey carried out by Four Four Two magazine points to a malaise in the game in England and Scotland far more unnerving that would have been expected.

It found that more than a quarter of professional players say depression is a problem.

Normally found in the wallow hole of selfishness, the top-level soccer player does not normally attract sympathy.

The Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, says that it’s a problem with which they have been grappling with for some time.

He should be concerned, as the magazine report also reveals that 26 per cent of the 100 surveyed players had witnessed racism and 14 per cent believe that match-fixing takes place.

Forty per cent had an issue with either racism or match-fixing, and another 43 per cent said there were too many foreign players in the UK. “Depressing” is the word.

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