Hard to see a place for sporting exceptionalism during a pandemic

We can only hope that the rush to return to international competition doesn’t backfire

It always struck home that having the best chin in boxing was a dubious honour for Irish world champion Wayne McCullough. His professional career showed how he took blows in the ring but never went down.

When McCullough hung up his gloves in 2008, he had never been put on the canvas. Both world champions Naseem Hamed and Mexican Erik Morales couldn't knock the kid from the Shankill over.

Notwithstanding his bravery and durability, which transformed an Olympic silver medal-winning amateur career into a WBC bantamweight world champion professional career, it might have been a preferable accolade to have been the boxer other fighters simply could not hit, thus saving his body and head particularly from severe punishment.

This week it was reported that the Irish football squad could be the first major sporting team to compete on the international stage in Uefa Nations League fixtures since the quarantine restrictions were introduced. On the face of it that too seems like a dubious honour.


Part of the package is to travel to Bulgaria on September 3rd, or about 40 days from now. Three days later Finland are scheduled to arrive in Dublin to face the team that just returned from Sofia.

Over half the domestic clubs in Bulgaria are impacted by the virus, with the country currently standing fourth worst in Europe for cases per 100,000 and not on the green list of 15 countries published by the Government earlier this week. Notwithstanding crazy scheduling headaches for the FAI, would it not be easier to avoid that punch than possibly taking one on the chin?

Finland, who are on Ireland’s green list, might also want to have a say in any decision.

There was also a suggestion that the Irish soccer team be gifted with a Government quarantine derogation to make the trip, or that the team be given a pass as essential frontline workers.

Teams are not listed on the Government’s March 29th list of ‘essential services’ so is sport seeking to politicise the science in order to make the thing they want to happen take place?

In short people are advised to follow the latest public health advice and implement suitable control measures to mitigate the risk of viral infection, with the national football team asking if they can please be exempt from that advice.

Britain and France have not been included in the Government's green list for travel either. Yet, the respective rugby unions and tournament organisers of the Pro 14, Champions Cup and Six Nations remain hopeful that this will not affect the completion of their competitions from the end of August through to the end of October.

Scheduling headaches. Again the rugby organisers will request dispensation regarding government isolation or quarantine guidelines. They too are buying into the idea of exceptionalism in a pandemic that has proven to show no exceptions.

It is also not lost on parents and children primed to go back to school at around the same time, that their heroic figures in the four provinces and the Irish football team may be permitted to flaunt the rules while they are still fretting over what school will look like, whether they will be allowed into their class rooms and the profound changes they will have to absorb to continue their education.

The timing of the messaging from rugby and football would seem at best poor.

Much as they don’t think they are, Britain is an unfolding catastrophe. Their measures reported by the BBC are: deaths with positive test results, 45,501 to July 21st; death certificate mentions of Covid-19, 55,460 to July 10th; deaths over and above normal at this time of year 64,189 to July 10th. Figures show 79 of those people died on Wednesday.

A humiliating and grim epitaph for a sophisticated and wealthy country. Still, the Champions Cup quarter-finals have been rescheduled for September 19th and 20th, with Leinster hosting Saracens at the Aviva Stadium on the Saturday and Ulster the following day travelling to Toulouse in France.

Except professional sportsmen are disciplined and engage in distancing and personal hygiene responsibility. Right?

May 7th, 2020: "Five Saracens players have apologised after they were pictured breaking social distancing rules on Monday. Billy Vunipola, Alex Goode, Nick Isiekwe, Sean Maitland and Josh Ibuanokpe met up in St Albans, clearly flouting UK government rules during the current lockdown. Saracens said they have spoken to the players, who accepted they had made an error in judgement."

This opening up process is a risk business. But as the USA has found over the last six months of the pandemic, more people than is encouraging take their cues and their behaviour from what they see around them and by the examples set by those they respect. So, Trump won’t wear the mask.

The entire Government enterprise in fighting the virus is essentially an exercise in mass discipline and population buy in. The very bodies who pride themselves in that are the ones who want to break out of the agreed mould, probably with popular support.

Climbing from this year’s financial wreckage, sports organisations understand timing. But it is the virus that has written the playbook. There is a time to take it on the chin and there is a time to duck and dive. An often recklessly brave Belfast boxer made it work for him. But at some cost.