Sport offers far more than the one perspective

 

LOCKER ROOM: Despite all the guff, serious people can be interested in sport

TWO BOOKS lying on the floor here. First, if somebody hasn't given you a present of Beyond the Moment, Irish Photojournalism in Our Time, then you should go out and buy a copy or steal one.

Amidst the trove of stunning images there is a wonderful shot (taken by Frank Miller of this parish) which captures two Dubs, Senan Connell and the late Tom Mulligan, perched on the old fencing in front of Hill 16 under a summer sky which matched their jerseys. Tom and Senan are hugging each other and taking the adulation offered to them by a sea of hands raised in happy applause. They have just beaten Kildare. It is 2002 and the Dubs are back.

When Tom died it was the same as when Cormac McAnallen and Paul McGirr and other great young athletes pass on. The air was incense-thick with well meant words and sad imprecations. Everybody said that "it put it all into perspective".

It doesn't really. A moment in front of Hill 16, a slope which Senan Connell and Tom Mulligan more than likely grew up on, a moment there hanging on the wire, jubilant, comradely, adored, hopeful, young, strong and athletic, those are the moments which put mere trespassers like death into perspective. Not the other way around.

There is no perspective which death offers which would make the Dublin footballers cease to be a sometimes overly fretful representation of the city's natural garrulousness and swagger. There was nothing in the tragic passing of Paul McGirr and Cormac McAnallen that would persuade a Mickey Harte or a Brian Dooher that those players' short lives wouldn't be further honoured and celebrated by Tyrone's continued pursuit of excellence.

This is a small bewilderment that I am often beset by: my failure to see the gaping perspective on sport which the death of a sports person is supposed to offer. Are we saying that the passion and the love that was their sporting life was a triviality? We make this journey just the once, as far as we know, and surely the memories of all that striving and training, all those moments of sheer exuberant abandon to sport, all that fleeting excellence, all the celebration and all the disappointment are more worthwhile then the memories of office trudge or classroom ennui or commonplace hangover struggles or disco nights in Club Monotony.

When it's all over, players don't miss beery nights in Coppers. They miss the other things, the training, the muscled feel of their own body, the hope which every season comes wrapped in, the proximity to their peak or perfection.

I thought of this odd business of people in grief diminishing the importance of sport in our lives when I read a review of the other book lying on the floor here. In this very organ, Peter Cunningham, in a favourable review of More Than Just a Game - Football v Apartheid: The Most Important Football Story Ever Told(that title puts a fair bit of pressure on the book, doesn't it?), summed up by noting: "This entertaining book, which is very good for sport, reveals the wisdom, pragmatism and tenacity of the men who shaped the new South Africa, and how the human spirit refuses to be broken."

Peter Cunningham is right about the book, but I couldn't work out what was meant by the phrase "which is very good for sport". That the book is better written and more entertaining than the usual sports book guff? Granted. Or that a book which shows that serious people were interested in sport will be a boon for sport itself?

Myself, I think that the story of organised soccer on Robben Island and the dignity and discipline which its disciples brought to the business isn't that surprising. (The names are terrific though. If there is ever a movie made, I am auditioning for the part of Tokyo Sexwale, the ANC man who went on to be a soccer administrator. I may just adopt the name for myself. Failing that, I will become Sipho Tshabalala.)

The book is wonderful, but it fleshes out in my head an entire series of rebuffs for not just the view that death puts sport into damning perspective, but for that other old canard about politics and sport not mixing. Take Barack. From Jack Johnston to Jessie Owens, to Jackie Robinson to Ali, to Tommie Smith right through to the commercial and sporting omnipotence of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, sport was a huge part of the push to the mountain top.

In Long Kesh in the darkest years, for republican prisoners in there a few weekly moments of reprieve would come when one or other of the womenfolk would smuggle in the results, written in the tiniest writing on cigarette paper, of the club GAA games played at the weekend throughout Ulster. These would be shouted at night from the cells to be greeted by a whoop or a loosed oath, depending on the scoreline. The image says much about the role of place in Irish sport and the role of place in Irish political struggle.

There is a story in More Than Just a Gamewhich appealed greatly. Anybody who has read Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedomwill remember Mandela's friend and comrade, Ahmad Kathrada. There is a lovely story, almost a parable, in that book of Kathy, as he was known, being forced by warders to move a wheelbarrow full of stones and being too slender and frail to do so, and Mandela, who noticed that the imminent toppling over of the barrow was a cause of mirth for the guards, hopping up to whisper to his friend that avoiding spilling everything was just a matter of balance and not brute.

Anyway, Kathrada's job on Robben Island was not unlike that of the man charged with accessing the GAA results and disseminating then in Long Kesh. He would take in the news and smuggle it around to his fellow prisoners.

Wonderfully, this quiet revolutionary became addicted on Robben Island to Shootmagazine and, in particular, became an avid fan not just of Leeds United but a devotee of Billy Bremner.

I can well understand how this could happen. At the time Bremner was a "columnist" for Shoot(who can forget the frisson of worry which sprinted up the spines of so many young fellas also addicted to Shootwhen Bremner and fellow columnist Kevin Keegan were sent off for fighting with each other at the 1974 Charity Shield Final? Could the magazine survive such tension between key editorial staff, we wondered?). Anyway, Kathrada viewed Bremner not as a bad-tempered hatchetman, as some of his detractors would have it, but as a radical who rejected authority (which is how I now also see Billy). Kathrada, though locked in isolation in B Section on Robben Island, was as distressed as any other civilised person at Leeds' shocking, 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich in the 1975 European Cup final (Lorimer's goal was perfect, I say) and wrote of the rioting that followed: "We have always thought the English were so polite and even-tempered. Have they changed so much, or have we been wrong all this time in our opinion?"

Who knows, Kathy, who knows? Sport alters people and perspectives. We're in the so-called silly season right now when all the shenanigans off the field distract us hugely. No harm, no harm. Sport is more important than we think, so it will be worth it.

Beyond the Moment, Irish Photojournalism in Our Time, edited by Colin Jacobsen, PPAI, 256pp, €30.

More Than Just a Game - Football v Apartheid: The Most Important Football Story Ever Told, by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, Collins 317pp, €25.70.