The minority sport report
For most of us, the Olympics revolve around big events such as sprinting, swimming and boxing. But for thousands of people who play minority sports in Ireland, the games have allowed them to see their sport on TV, read about their heroes in the papers . . . and dream, as NIAMH GRIFFINdiscovered. Photographs by Aidan Crawleyand Alan Betson
Damien Molloy says people often think of badminton as a soft option, but once you see a shuttlecock fly into someone’s face at 300km/hr, you don’t really think that anymore.
“The physicality is big, and as a game it is a bit chess-like,” the Offaly man says. “You are trying to manoeuvre your opponent around, you can wear your arm out just hitting it from A to B but that won’t get you any points.”
Now 44, he’s been playing since he was a child and has the lean physique of someone who doesn’t sit still much. Work used to get in the way of training but now he works with Badminton Ireland in Dublin – his office is about 10 steps from the courts. His main worry now is the small number of coaches outside of Dublin. He says one travels to Ennis every week, staying overnight, to give sessions.
Olympian and Donegal woman Chloe Magee travels to the capital for training. Molloy says he will definitely take a break from training when she plays, but he sounds wistful about those lost hours.
Meanwhile John Donovan is ramping up his training on the same courts, as his Italian fiancee is moving here soon and the four-hour sessions will have to stop. For him, badminton has kept a sportsmanship more commercial sports have lost.
“In the Italian nationals last year, one team smashed a shot on the line. The judge called it out but the other team disagreed (and) deliberately hit the net with their next shot to give back the point,” he says.
Being an archer in Ireland can be frustrating as arrows don’t like the rain. Máire Hackett says damp ground pulls the arrows down and can make outdoor shooting difficult.
Hackett took up archery a year ago and already has a target in her garden. “I have three boys and a few dogs,” she says. “I lock them away when I’m shooting. The dogs, not the boys.”
One son worries she might be arrested for having a lethal weapon in the house. But she admits her male friends struggle more with her new hobby than the women do. Training with the Wicklow Archery Club twice a week, Hackett says she has no interest in killing anything, that shooting with her Recurve bow is just a sport. But it’s one the slightly-built 49-year-old takes seriously.
Sitting outside a cafe, she jumps up mid-sentence and demonstrates how to maintain “form”. One fist under her chin, the other arm stretched rigidly ahead of her, she plants her hips in a move familiar to anyone who’s seen Robin Hood in action. “There’s a lot of physics involved in getting it right. But I love the sound of the bow. I love the sound of hitting the target,” she says.
Hackett says archers are a close community, maybe because there are so few of them. But she hasn’t held an Olympic party in spite of her excitement. “It would be the sort of thing you’d pause and watch slowly,” she says. “It wouldn’t be a group thing with a few drinks. It’s a serious business, you have to concentrate.”
Weightlifting has been described as one of the fastest sports in the Olympics, which Jimmy Jennings says surprises many people.
“It’s a movement sport; you need flexibility and coordination. I’ve often thought if we could get athletes from another sport, it would be gymnasts,” says the 66-year-old.
Walking lightly around the 77-year-old Hercules Club in Dublin, he points out pictures of a former Olympian and other world title holders.
The men working out here are less stiff-looking than you might expect.
There are two parts to the sport – the snatch, and the clean and jerk. When Jennings drops swiftly into position to demonstrate the difference, suddenly the speed thing makes sense.
He can “snatch” 50 kgs of the colourful weights. And move furniture for his wife. A record-holder can lift up to 190kgs.
The clean and jerk is more complex. “I wouldn’t count at all in the records. I do about a 60kgs jerk, that’s a Mickey Mouse weight,” he says. The world record is 238kgs. But for Jennings, it’s all about the next generation. He says proudly there are now 17 women in Ireland ranked, when 10 years ago there were none. “You get a lift from it. There is a feeling of well-being in the shower. I think you feel stronger, fitter and faster. Osteoporosis wouldn’t be on the menu,” he says, smiling.
He’s watching the Olympic games mostly online. You need time, he says, to watch the movements and to look into the competitors’ eyes. “Everyone wants to win an Olympic medal. It’s way beyond winning an All-Ireland,” he says.
Watching a four-year-old on his first BMX bike navigating the track in Co Meath is as good as winning gold, says former racer Eamonn Wyer.
“It kills me not to be at the top myself. I’m too slow, too old,” he says quietly. “But I’m 43 and for me it’s winning just to see the sport back again.
“It never dawned on me to compete at that (international) level again, this is flat out power. It’s 400m around, that’s Usain Bolt by four you know.”
Bikers start at the top of a steep, 4m-high slope and pedal furiously on the starter’s orders. By half-way down they’re hitting almost 50km/h in the scramble for a good line, according to Wyer.
Thirteen-year-old Katie O’Neill says it can be tough at the top. “There’s usually five or six of us at the gate. There’re a lot of elbows.” Wyers walks around the track, talking quickly as the kids power past. They don’t slow down either.
He says the Olympics are “out-dated” and mutters darkly about road cyclists doing BMX commentary. But he still wants to see an Irish team at Rio2016.
It’s a commitment shared by the men who fund-raised and built this track with Wyer, “calling in favours from builder- mates”.
An application for a grant was stymied by their field becoming NAMA-land, so they did it themselves.
Most of the fathers here bring their own bikes as well – some have been friends for more than 25 years. A few mothers sit in the sun.
“I love it,” Wyer says. “When you’re parked at the gate, the butterflies are in your stomach, the heart is thumping, even now there’s nothing like that boost. I just want to ride my bike.”
THE HAMMER THROW
Sitting on her sofa, holding a large steel ball with scary-looking wires protruding from it, Anne Buckley says the hammer throw is “poetry”.
“It is a very fluid action,” she says. “When the movement comes off well, there is an aesthetic beauty about it. That sounds awfully corny doesn’t it?”
Not as corny as admitting thinking the event involves a hammer.
Buckley smiles and explains patiently that that’s the Highland Games not the Olympics. “Some of my friends think I do that, I’d say. They don’t know exactly what I’m doing.”
At 59, the retired nurse says she talks now more than she throws. But watching her heft the ball and swivel towards the fireplace you realise her pretty yellow dress and make-up camouflage serious strength.
Buckley says cameras love the flight of the hammer but the real skill is in the footwork. Turning tiny exact circles, building up speed without losing balance when you throw is an art, she says.
“I took it up and I loved it. And I love training the kids, I just want them to throw it further and further,” she says of her coaching work with north Dublin club Raheny Shamrocks.
As for the Olympics, she says it’s frustrating to get 30 seconds’ coverage when so much time is spent talking in studio, and she would like people to remember the “field” in track and field.
So Buckley’s been online for London – laptop open on the kitchen table – noting down each swirl of the wire so she can pass it on at the next training session.
Colm Flynn has been fencing for 12 years, and knows the moves, but even he is relieved Olympic fencers are flanked by large screens showing the thrusts in slow-motion replays.
“On the stage you want the sword movements big enough for the audience to see. But in fencing you make a very small movement so even your opponent can’t see it,” he says.
Flynn (28), who has just completed a Phd in siege warfare, says the history of fencing is fascinating but nowadays of course it’s not about duelling at dawn. Apparently having someone point a sword at you focuses the mind wonderfully and it’s a great antidote to stress.
Laying out his three swords – foil, épée and sabre – on the kitchen table, Flynn points to the wires that link the sword-tips to scoring boxes. He adds, in a slightly weary tone, that the swords are not sharp and he doesn’t spend his time trying to hurt people. The Olympics are wireless, but he says Irish fencing could never afford that.
One of a thousand fencers in Ireland, Flynn plans to open a club and wants to move the sport out of universities. “Years ago the Kilkenny Open was big, but there’s no fencing there now, for example,” he says.
The Dubliner thinks he was lucky to have started quite young, but says to be in with a shot at gold you need to start before the age of 10.
“The highest level I competed at was the lowest level with world ranking points, but I have fenced against genuine quality. It’s amazing to see. If you get a point off them you know you’ve done something right,” the former Irish captain says. He’s now in London with a dozen Irish fencers, watching and learning.