Ian O’Riordan: We are sports mad but sanity needed to tackle obesity

Instead of taxing sugary drinks, the Government should focus on getting people active

Michael McKillop  celebrates his victory in the men’s 1,500m T37 final in  Rio. Photograph: Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images

Michael McKillop celebrates his victory in the men’s 1,500m T37 final in Rio. Photograph: Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images

 

Richard Harris always said the reason he loved coming home to Ireland was because whenever people described him as mad they meant it as a compliment. Which is also why whenever we describe ourselves as a sport-mad nation we mean that in a good way too, right? 

Nowhere will the madness of this sporting life be more evident than in Croke Park on Sunday. One of our favourite ways of describing All-Ireland final day is as the best-attended sporting event anywhere in the world this weekend, which may be a slight exaggeration: Dublin and Mayo supporters could easily have filled all 82,300 seats twice over (and if there was any sort of guarantee Mayo would win, make that threefold). 

I’ve gone with our Racing Correspondent Brian O’Connor’s instincts and bet on the draw, although no matter who wins or loses, both sets of supporters will happily mingle in the cheery aftermath. There’s a hint of madness about that too, but again in a good way. 

Our football supporters are the Mad Hatters of Europe, always happy to party, and even our sometimes maligned League of Ireland went all good-humoured this week. A goal down, then a man down, Dundalk’s 1-1 draw with AZ Alkmaar on Thursday night was justifiably celebrated for the record-making occasion it was (a first ever point for an Irish club in the European group stages). Hearing goal-scorer Ciarán Kilduff describe his recent recovery from a broken back to RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue added another hint of the eccentric. 

Any excuse for sporting action these days and we’re all mad for it. Participation levels across the three major field sports – GAA, soccer and rugby – are higher than ever and with greater gender balance. Part of what makes All-Ireland Sunday so special is the fact so many supporters are participants in their own way, playing back at club or schools level – Senators and TDs aside, naturally. 

Global stage

Even on the global stage, there are few sporting events left where Ireland fails to leave its mark. Look at the Paralympics in Rio: in Athens 2004, we didn’t win a single gold medal, yet we are now the envy of several nations of weightier reputations. By day eight we had already reached our target of eight medals, and then promptly surpassed it. 

It’s not just because of the gold-medal winning exploits of Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop; it’s also because of the sheer persistence and enthusiasm of the likes of shooter Phil Eaglesham, who contracted Q fever while serving in Afghanistan and now sees sport as his lifeline. 

Eaglesham didn’t win a medal in Rio and for most of the 4,350 athletes that’s not necessarily the point, given many of them have risen above extreme circumstances just to get there. Try telling the likes of Eaglesham that he’s mad to even aspire towards winning a medal and he will certainly take it as a compliment. 

This is happening in the strictly non-competitive sporting sense too. It used to be that anyone seen running or cycling in the mountains was considered properly mad; now some people pay good money for that right. Which may help explain why Glencullen Golf Course, not very deep into the Dublin Mountains, is currently being turned into a mountain bike trail.

It might be just a sign of the times but there’s a little more physical exertion involved in riding a bike at high speed over undulating hills than there is walking around an 18-hole golf course. There might be a new trend or lesson somewhere in there too. 

Fattest people

All of which might also suggest our madness for all things sporting should be turning us into the fittest people in Europe, when, of course we’re not. We’re turning, into the fattest. 

Indeed there is something strangely contradictory about all this talk of overweight adults and children and the rise of obesity, which according to some reports, will be hovering somewhere around 90 per cent of the population by 2030, the highest projected level Europe.

You don’t need me to repeat the scary thought that one in four Irish children is now considered to be overweight, because for a country that prides itself on being so mad about sport, that makes little sense. 

About as much sense actually as adding 10 cent to the price of a can of sugary drinks. This proposed sugar tax, presuming Minister for Finance Michael Noonan does include it as part of next month’s budget, and even if it doesn’t come in until 2018, may be viewed as just one small step towards addressing that obesity crisis, but it should be the last step, not the first one. It would be nothing more than a cosmetic exercise, and that little pun is well intended. 

Grocery market

According to the latest survey by Checkout magazine, Coca-Cola is still the top brand in the Irish grocery marketplace (for the 12th successive year), with Cadbury Diary Milk in second position, and Tayto not far outside the medals in fifth. That might be a better reflection of the extent of the problem, and why adding 10 cent to a can of Coke will make zero difference. 

Meanwhile, this freshly health-conscious Government has suspended funding for the proposed walking and cycling “greenway” linking Dublin city centre with the Dublin Mountains, along with similar projects (phase four of the Royal Canal greenway, segregated cycling lanes at Portobello, etc). Instead, the National Transport Authority has told Dublin City Council to stop working on those projects until the €1.1 billion Luas Cross City project is completed, scheduled for late 2017. 

Why prioritise walking and cycling, in other words, when people can take the Luas? Like a sugar tax that may not sound much like a sporting matter but it is madness nonetheless, and that’s no compliment.

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