Code of silence makes it feel as if the GAA are stepping back in time

Stark contrast in interview opportunities with Olympic athletes and GAA players

Mayo presented James Horan and defender Stephen Coen (pictured) for interview after their victory over Dublin and that was it. Photograph:  James Crombie/Inpho

Mayo presented James Horan and defender Stephen Coen (pictured) for interview after their victory over Dublin and that was it. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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As you know it’s National Heritage Week and one of the finest of all the Wicklow estates is open for public viewing not far down the hill from me at Charleville. This being the same hill that leads down to the adjacent Powerscourt estate, only in my view there is a special serenity and mercurial beauty about Charleville which make it slightly more magnificent.

Either way it presented the perfect escape from the world for an hour or so on a rainy afternoon in August. Maybe because it was raining it felt like there was no else around the long and splendorous garden paths or at least not the neatly clustered beech walk sheltered by its own twisting intertwined branches.

It was here my mobile phone told me it had no more storage space left when attempting to take a photograph. A quick stroll through and this could be partly explained by the hundreds of voice recordings still on there from before and right throughout the Tokyo Olympics. And I mean hundreds, some as long as half an hour, others just short sound bites taken in the still heat of the moment, and a teasing playback through some of them already sounded like little snippets of sporting heritage in their own way.

All 19 of the sports which qualified Irish athletes or teams for Tokyo had afforded us ample interview opportunities in the weeks and days in advance of the Games. Actually that’s not strictly true: Athletics Ireland didn’t bother themselves only that was true to form from an association now more akin to the Secret Service.

Most of these interviews were done over Zoom, some in person, and all of them provided a valuable insight not just into the individual preparations and aspirations, but also in revealing the different lives and backgrounds that already set them apart as Olympians. It being the largest Irish team in Olympic history also made for a great bounty of different interview subjects, and in truth some of the tales ended up being deleted long before Charleville without ever seeing the light of print on paper.

Deflated

Some were naturally more forthcoming than others: Paul O’Donovan on rowing, Cian O’Connor on show jumping, Billy Dardis on rugby sevens, Eddie Dunbar on cycling and Carolyn Hayes on triathlon, their experience spoke for itself; Tanya Watson on diving, Nhat Nguyen on badminton, Megan Ryan on gymnastics, Daniel Wiffen on swimming, their youth still spoke of experience.

Once the Games began our access became effectively one required area, or rather the mixed zone which every Olympic athlete is obliged to walk through after their event. Elated or deflated, teary-eyed or laughing, down or just out, they all had to face the music of our voice recorders, which were typically presented to them by a small group of masked men quietly demanding to know what the hell just happened out here. All done within the required social distancing, obviously.

At times the mixed zone provided evidence too that the face of defeat is often more telling than the face of victory, or why Arthur Miller always said we learn more about ourselves in tragedy than comedy: Natalya Coyle on modern pentathlon, Jack Wholley on taekwondo, Rhys McClenaghan on gymnastics, Emmet Brennan on boxing, talking about their Olympic dreams being crushed before our eyes and all coming straight from the heart.

On the ground in Tokyo, the Olympic Federation of Ireland also had a designated and dedicated team of four to help ensure we got what we needed and whenever we needed it, including an interview with boxing high-performance manager Bernard Dunne on the eve of Kellie Harrington’s gold medal fight. In the end it felt like if there was such a thing as some lasting sporting heritage from these Tokyo Olympics then at least most of it has been put down here somewhere in the exact words of those who helped create it.

All of this made for a jolting return when stepping back into the world of Gaelic Games over the last week or so, where now more than ever there appears to be an increasingly common silence borne out of some sort of fear and paranoia or at least an unwillingness to speak openly about what it all actually means. Even if they’re only representing their county, not their country, even if they flash their amateur card and don’t trust us or themselves to be moderate about their own words, it feels in some ways as if the GAA are stepping back in time rather than moving with it.

After last Saturday’s suitably and suitable epic showdown in Croke Park between six-time All-Ireland champions Dublin and dearest of rivals Mayo, only managers Dessie Farrell and James Horan were presented for interview afterwards (beyond Pádraig O’Hora being presented with his TV man-of-the-match award). My intrepid colleague Malachy Clerkin did manage to doorstep Lee Keegan just before he escaped on to the Mayo team bus, only after seven years and 45 games unbeaten, not a single Dublin player could afford us even a single word about what losing in this still heated moment may actually have meant to them or indeed Gaelic Games.

Opportunities

Of course there is no right or entitlement here, and it could be that enduring Covid-19 restrictions are an excuse although not a reason. Some counties or provinces are better than others, and Limerick made a fair attempt at interview opportunities ahead of their hurling final showdown with Cork this Sunday; a few hours before Dublin played Mayo in Croke Park last Saturday, Cork presented their hurling manager, selector and one starting player for interview down in Cork.

At lunchtime on Thursday in Castlebar, Mayo presented James Horan and defender Stephen Coen for interview and that was it: there won’t be another word from anyone in the Mayo camp before their football final showdown on September 11th, even though they don’t yet even know who they are facing. That will make for a long silence for a team looking to win their first All-Ireland in 70 years and maybe part of it is just paranoia.

What the many tales of the Tokyo voice recordings also told us is that many Irish Olympians are certainly no better off or more privileged than senior county footballers and hurlers, at least not when it comes to the free gear and meals or other personal endorsements, and some including Kellie Harrington were returning to their own places of work in the near aftermath of victory or defeat.

And what the voice recordings ultimately say more than anything is they are an antithesis to Gaelic Games, where so much silence probably means some snippets of their own heritage is being lost in the process.

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