Heady steps in the shadows of a giant’s departure

Keith Duggan’s sports review of 2016

Cheerio, so, to the year 2016 AD – 12 months that seemed crowded with unwanted departures, a purple rainfall in which the brightest stars were extinguished at an alarming rate, and a calendar year which trumped all others in the blackest of political jokes.

In the gaudy, compelling arena of sport, therefore, the year was defined by the death of Muhammad Ali, whose silent departure in June stood in vivid contrast to the loquaciousness which characterised his gargantuan, American life.

"The man who will whip me will be fast, strong and hasn't been born yet," Ali boasted once, and when we look at the diminished influence of the world heavyweight boxing title(s), it is hard to say he was wrong. If you ever want to remind yourself of how big boxing once was you only have to recall that for Ali-Frazier I, in Madison Square Garden, the officially accredited photographer for Life magazine was one F Sinatra.

For a full week after his death, at the age of 74, Ali’s playful boasts and his deadly serious ideologies were recalled. Any one of his reported moments retains the power to bring a laugh. But maybe transport yourself to a party somewhere unrecorded in 1970s Manhattan – the atmosphere smoky, the cocktails laced and the tuxedo bow-ties obscene. Among the assorted guests, Ali and the violinist Isaac Stern inevitably whirl into one another – their egos would have collided in an airport hangar, let alone an evening formal.


Stern, then, convivial and dashing, opens with a greeting that contains, intentionally or not, an implied sense of superiority. “You might say we are in the same business. We both work with our hands.”

Ali scrutinises the musician – and can’t you just see the mock-arch in the brows and hear the mock-indignation in his husky reply: “You must be pretty good. There isn’t a mark on you.”

Who knows if it happened like that? And who cares? Ali, in the decades since the supremely beautiful athlete matured into the terribly silenced yet graceful older man, had come to embody everything that is good and bad about sport. Boxing gave so much to Ali and took so much away and he accepted both fates without losing that shine.

His luminosity as an athlete has defied normal wattage; as chronicled in Drama In The Bahamas, Dave Hannigan's fine portrait of his last fight, the man was done some 35 years ago after a tawdry sideshow of a fight in the Bahamas. He should have been a relic of the old century, the last millennium.

Without trying or wanting to, Ali stayed relevant right until the end of his life.

Vital figure

Sports fans cast about now for a similarly outsized, vital figure whose life echoes with and responds to the events of our time. And he or she is hard to identify. The peerless brilliance is easily found: it's there in abundance and in HD and you can pick your own star: Michael Phelps or Conor McGregor or Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James or Serena Williams. But they are all locked within their relatively narrow spheres of excellence and defined not so much by what they stand for as by the products they endorse.

The global arena of sport is crowded for the fan – the consumer – and it is hard for anyone to stand out. And it is extremely difficult to imagine the life of any of today’s leading figures celebrated in decades to come with the same intensity as Ali generated this summer.

In pop cultural terms, 2016 seemed to fall into an uneasy rhythm after David Bowie’s spectacular – and there is no other word – death in early January. It was as if sport followed that strange, unpredictable beat, conspiring to give us two literal fairytales.

One was local, with Connacht gloriously shedding their designated make-up-the-numbers role to win the Pro12 title (sweetened by the final opposition being Leinster). The other went global, when Leicester City won their first English football title. How did that happen? The pre-season odds of 5,000-1 were a de facto dismissal of the idea that Leicester could win.

Yet, somehow, they slipped through a worm-hole of logic created by a season-long experiment in dysfunction generated by Louis van Gaal at Manchester United and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and then had the chutzpah to do what Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur could not. They just kept going. It was surely the very last example of coaching and honest endeavour triumphing over the sheer power of flinging money at clubs to buy managers, players, championships.

Everyone knows it: the Premier League is human daftness wrapped up in brilliant entertainment. It's fantasy football with real people. Mourinho sulks and fumes his way through the first part of last season before daring Chelsea to dismiss him. His reward? – a contract to manage the most famous football club in the world, where this season he has continued to act like the unappeasable rascal in the crèche.

Football differs from normal corporate businesses in that it demands that its managers and decision-makers entertain, too. You see Mourinho now and you see a man trapped into playing the version of himself that the game helped to create. But it was a riveting year for the beautiful game, from Leicester’s audacity to the all-Madrid European final, to Iceland’s stunning emergence in Euro 2016, an ordinary tournament elevated for Irish fans by Robbie Brady’s fabulous goal against Italy, which ranks alongside the best of the Republic’s signature tournament contributions.

The sharp rise in Jeff Hendrick's stock after his eye-catching turn in France was an illustration of the constant bidding war within professional football. Such vast sums of money run through football now that, in theory, the stakes are highest at the top. And yes, the day-and-night pressure of managing a serious club in any sport must be monstrous.

But sport at all levels makes people behave in ways they otherwise would not. During the first weekend in December, for example, even as Mourinho did his latest Hamlet turn after a 1-1 draw with Everton, things went from bad to worse over the course of a lower league football match between fourth division derby rivals Sarmiento and Sansinena in Buenos Aires. What had been a mildly diverting football game turned dark on a decision by referee Claudio Elichiri not to award a penalty to the home team.

In the footage, anarchy visits quickly. The home players are incensed while the Sansinena players respond to their reprieve with a swift and terrifically worked counter-attacking goal which culminates in the usual cardiac-arrest inducing announcement from the local commentator.

The outraged home players protest vigorously and Elichiri, unfortunately clad in a luminous orange shirt, brandishes several red cards and then discovers that he has become the point of destination for dozens of outraged Sarmiento fans who invade the pitch (no difficult feat: some spectators were able to enjoy the match from their cars parked directly behind the posts where the offending goal has been scored). The breakdown in law and of demarcated roles – players, police and other match officials – is instantaneous as the best and worst of human behaviour comes to the fore.

Two of the Sarmiento players continually attempt to shield and protect the terrified referee as they escort him off the field with more and more fans circling, looking for blood. Whatever reason was left in the evening disappeared when a truly enormous Sarmiento fan, who seems at least one foot taller than everyone else, suddenly sweeps into the view of the camera lens and dispatches the police man with a frightening right hook before setting about the referee. A free-for-all follows. Through all of this, the names of the teams remained on the screen, along with the scoreline and the entirely unnecessary advisory: suspendido.

The Sarmiento attack was just one of many similar disgraces which flared in the name of sport in various spots throughout the world over the year. In Mexico, an amateur player went on the run after causing the death of a referee through an on-field assault. Bruno Maric, a Bosnian referee, had to wave the gun he was carrying when was attacked by Hajduk Split fans while having lunch in a restaurant: other diners and waiters had to help him fend off Split fans. In the fourth quarter of a hockey match in Karachi, Pakistan, referee Takreem Iftikhar was set upon by four players of the Hanif Khan X1 club, upset with his officiating.

In Sligo, Ireland, an off-duty garda was struck and lost consciousness when he tried to assist a referee who was being verbally abused at the end of a minor GAA game. The languages and prevailing weather conditions may vary but the incidents are sporadic and the games relatively obscure. And the submissions to violence are nothing new.

"In England, the obsession with sport is bad enough, but even fiercer passions are aroused in young countries where games playing and nationalism are both recent developments," complained George Orwell, noted curmudgeon of all things sporting in his famous 1945 essay.

“In countries like India or Burma, it is necessary at football matches to have strong cordons of police to keep the crowd from invading the field. In Burma, I have seen the supporters of one side break through the police and disable the goalkeeper of the opposing side at a critical moment. The first big football match that was played in Spain about 15 years ago led to an uncontrollable riot. As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes.

“People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don’t intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and ‘rattling’ opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

The last four words of the paragraph have been quoted thousands of times as convenient shorthand for all that is wrong with sport. And 2016, a breathless and cluttered year for glamorous, global events, gave plenty of oxygen to the notion that competitive sport teaches us nothing.

Global events

The Olympic Games in Rio began with the bitter controversy over whether Russia’s athletes, compromised by a national doping policy, should or should not be allowed to participate. The ill-feeling was quickly reduced to a surface and absurd cold war pastiche between the swimmers of America (good) and Russia (bad). Rio itself was plagued by a sense that the seven million locals didn’t really want this conflated circus of an event which the vast majority couldn’t afford to attend anyhow.

If London had been a conspicuous success for the International Olympic Committee, then Rio was an exercise in crisis management, from daily reports of the obscene cost of a fortnight's sport to displaced locals to the high-profile arrest of the Olympic Council of Ireland chief executive Pat Hickey. A storm broke out on the night of the closing ceremony to leave the lasting impression Olympics model has become troubled and grotesque: a 20th century idea with good intentions gone to seed.

In October, Virginia Raggi, newly elected mayor of Rome, declared that the city would not be bidding for the 2024 Games; that they needed the money to concentrate on the city's rubbish and waste problem. That leaves just three interested cities: Los Angeles, Paris and Budapest – and the possibility that the IOC will soon be wandering the world like an ageing playboy in search of debauchery that finished up years before.

It has become fashionable to dismiss the Olympics as a travelling pharmaceutical freak show, hawked out to television networks willing to pay small-nation GDP-sums for the rights to broadcast the events to an audience which, going by plummeting viewing figures, has already turned on Netflix anyway.

The thing about big-time sport is that it will give you all the opportunity in the world to be cynical about it. That's why saying you don't "believe" in the Olympics is like saying you don't believe in life. When it comes down to it, the Olympics is just people and human behaviour: it is Ryan Lochte in the swimming pool and Ryan Lochte out of the swimming pool.

Without question it is flawed: it is unfair; it has a history of cheating; the bullies win too often; it promotes an ugly nationalistic fervour; and the ice cream is over-priced. So it is with the world. You take it for what it is, hope that it learns to behave and find occasionally that it retains the magic of being able to thrill and delight and humble. And it still does all that.

For Ireland, the fortnight in Rio was a pure exercise in schizophrenia: non-stop disillusionment and tears in the boxing ring, memorably captured in Michael Conlan’s furious tirade against the AIBA and a wonderful series of peak performances on the water and on the athletics track. The silver medal won by Paul and Gary O’Donovan in the double sculls acted as a kind of release-valve for several decades of world-class Irish rowers who had, for one reason or another, fallen short at Olympics. Ireland’s heritage required Olympic validation and the unflappable Cork brothers provided it.

Annalise Murphy and Thomas Barr and Natalya Coyle and Oliver Dingley: it was a summer when Irish sports stars existing on the fringes of recognition deservedly moved to centre stage. And of course, the Olympics is the cruellest event: athletes spend years trying to get there and then it all passes by in a fortnight; a day, a second, in the sound of a bell in the boxing ring or a starter's pistol on the track. Then they start again.

Meanwhile, 2016 thundered on. Munster rugby lost Anthony Foley and in the weeks afterwards rediscovered its soul. Out of the blue, Ireland beat the All Blacks in November. The gentleman's game has never been more popular with the people, even as the worries over the welfare of its best practitioners become louder. We turn up. We turn a deaf ear. It's too good not to watch. Even as Christmas falls, the four Irish provincial teams are looking forward, in what was a messy, memorable year, to clattering into one another once more before the page turns to a new year – and the slate is wiped clean.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times