Ian O’Riordan: Has sport become bad for our health?

The more obsessed and consumed we are with elite sport, the less active we’ve become

Joey Barton:  banned for 18 months after he admitted to  placing over 15,000 bets across a range of sports since 2004, including 1,260 on football. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Joey Barton: banned for 18 months after he admitted to placing over 15,000 bets across a range of sports since 2004, including 1,260 on football. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

 

There’s talk of a hike in the mountains on Sunday, or maybe a swim somewhere, mainly because there’s nothing much on the box this weekend. Except for the snooker, or the last day of Punchestown, although no one seems to have any money left to burn on horses after the Easter holidays. 

It actually feels like the first sporting lull of the year, partly explained by the sense a considerable chunk of every weekend so far has been spent sitting in front of a large screen, or else staring down at the phone. Usually with something stronger than an Elderflower cordial at hand. 

Last Sunday was a proper marathon, and while not everyone will feel the urge to sit through 26.2 miles of running around the streets the London, it helped set the pace for the day. There was simply no stopping – or moving – from there. 

This modern-day relationship and consumption of sport – particularly at the so-called elite end – has already been subjected to some scrutiny, only it’s getting increasingly difficult to see where exactly the benefits lie. 

For a start, it seems the more obsessed and consumed we are with elite sport, the less active we’ve become, rather than the other way around. At least if our ever expanding waistlines and longer waits on hospital trolleys are anything to go by. There is no evidence whatsoever it’s transferring to a healthier state of the nation, physically or mentally. 

There was also some gentle irony in that one of the proper marathon efforts of the weekend received such scant recognition. In running 2:16:18 in London, Sean Hehir beat his previous best by 52 seconds, and with that earned his selection for the World Championships, back in London, later this summer. 

At age 32, this was Hehir’s 10th marathon, all now run under 2:20, and it’s a pretty inspiring story given he commutes from Wexford to Dublin each day, to teach at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál in Inchicore. (He can’t afford to buy or rent in Dublin). He also coaches three times a week, after school, all while averaging 115 miles of running a week in the build-up to London. 

There is that entirely different realm of sport, the people whose weekends often begin with a Saturday morning park run, and after that maybe a swim somewhere, and who would never consider themselves elite, which is probably just as well. 

Because part of the message coming from elite sport these days is that in some cases it’s becoming unhealthy to the extreme, not so much physically but definitely mentally.

Unmistakable hypocrisy

There was some unmistakable hypocrisy to Joey Barton’s 18-month suspension for illegal betting charges, handed down the FA on Wednesday, which the 34 year-old says has effectively ended his career at Burnley. 

Whatever about betting on games his team was involved in, Barton’s claim of placing over 15,000 bets across a range of sports since 2004, including 1,260 on football, should surely have the FA reaching for their moral compass. 

Instead, as Emmet Malone laid out on these pages, recently half of the Premier League’s 20 clubs have the names of bookmakers or related businesses on their shirts this season, including Barton’s own club (sponsored by Dafabet).  

Indeed all 20 clubs have commercial links to at least one betting or money-lending firm, hardly surprising given the estimated global spend in online football betting is put at anything up to €700 billion each year, a significant portion of which goes on top flight English football. 

“If the FA is serious about tackling gambling I would urge it to reconsider its own dependence on the gambling industry,” said Barton, in a statement denouncing the extent of his penalty.

Without political intervention there’s little chance of that happening. The financial and psychological damage to those who see gambling as an extension of elite sport, meanwhile, goes unchecked. 

Amateur ideals

The curious case of Cork teenager Seán Cooke, who on Thursday lost his case against Cork club Carrigaline United for the post traumatic stress disorder he claimed resulted from being dropped from the team, took this unhealthy relationship with elite sport to a new and dangerous low. The only consolation in that case being Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin’s unequivocal response to the plaintiff “to cop on”, that “this is about child soccer, under 15”. 

All of which begs the question: is sport becoming bad for our health? 

There are plenty of people in Sport Ireland who would say no, given part of their role is to secure Government funding for elite sport.

There is a world of difference from the overtly professional environment in which the likes of Joey Barton operate compared to the still amateur ideals of Sean Hehir, and to a large extent most of the national governing bodies of Irish sport are there to serve the betterment of their athletes, from the elite level all the way down. 

The problem is when national governing bodies lose sight of that, such as the situation the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) now finds itself in.

Thursday’s announcement that former world champion Bernard Dunne is to take up their high performance director position – essentially driving the elite end of Irish boxing – was overshadowed by a rift in the Association already torn apart by a disastrous Rio Olympics last summer and last month’s scathing review in Sport Ireland’s Rio report. 

The Irish boxing team received €3.49 million in direct high performance funding in the four years to Rio, more than any other of Olympic sport. It received €432,000 in core funding for this year, plus €700,000 for high performance, down on the €900,000 for 2016, yet still a considerable amount of money. 

Until the IABA can agree on a chairman or indeed some sort of mediation that can’t be a healthy sporting relationship.

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