Sports review 2017: Margaret and Benjamin – a day in the life and death of sport

Keith Duggan looks back at the year through the lens of a day in July

Floyd Mayweather  lands a punch against Conor McGregor during the 10th round of their fight at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in  August. Photograph: Bridget Bennett/The New York Times

Floyd Mayweather lands a punch against Conor McGregor during the 10th round of their fight at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in August. Photograph: Bridget Bennett/The New York Times

 

On July 25th, 2017, Manchester City finalised a £52 million contract to secure defender Benjamin Mendy from Monaco while across the Atlantic ocean, word spread through the borough of Queens that Margaret Lambert had died, on a sweltering afternoon, at the age of 103.

These were just two of the events in another ordinary, teeming day in another teeming year within the vast, unruly carnival of sport. Mendy’s signing moved the dial on record transfer fees further, breaking the world-record fee for a defender which City had established just a week earlier by signing Kyle Walker . It proved to be a dream move interrupted for Mendy: the Frenchman ruptured his cruciate ligament in September against Crystal Palace, placing him in rehab until spring of next year. But within weeks of arriving in Manchester, Mendy established himself as a more vivid presence than many Premier League players achieve in a full career.

He was emblematic of a new breed of footballer, unafraid to express opinion or delight: a giddy dressingroom presence and a social media prankster, now writing a column in the Times railing against the outrages of human trafficking, now taking to Instagram to display a range of Gucci he had been gifted and executing a famous hop-along sprint along the sideline in baseball cap and parka to join in the celebrations of Raheem Sterling’s 95th-minute winner against Southampton.

To viewers watching on around the world, he must have looked like an audacious fan as he produced his phone and persuaded Sterling to pose for a selfie. “You can’t laugh about it,” protested Danny Murphy, the model pro turned TV pundit. Murphy was smiling but clearly aghast. “The game’s gone mad, hasn’t it?” Later when Pep Guardiola was asked about City’s most expensive defender attempting to sprint 40 yards on a gammy leg, he just shook his head. “Mendy is crazy”.

No, in the lunatic world of the English Premier League, Mendy is commendably sane. It seems clear he appreciates his blessed fortune to exist in a football world beyond the comprehension of those who played for Manchester City through the previous century. Even if he never kicks another football, he will remain materially wealthy, belonging as he does to the first ever generation of footballers playing a fleshed-out version of a fantasy world.

Benjamin Mendy celebrates with goalscorer Gabriel Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne during the Premier League game against Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Benjamin Mendy celebrates with goalscorer Gabriel Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne during the Premier League game against Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Margaret Lambert, with whom Mendy shared headlines just for one day, had different concerns growing up in 1930s Germany as Gretel Bergmann where she excelled as a high jumper of international standard. She was banned from her club Ulmer FV 1894 when the Nazi party assumed power in 1933 and promptly left for Britain, returning after insistent entreaties – and unsubtle threats – to a national squad keen to demonstrate that no Jewish exclusion policy existed.

She tied the German record of 1.60 metres in the weeks before the Berlin Olympics of 1936 but was dropped from the squad anyway, after a letter cited ‘under-performance’. She exited her country for New York and privately vowed never to return to Germany and soon the world tumbled into a vortex of evil and she forgot all about her high-jumping.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Lambert’s native country began to fuzzily remember her, inviting her to several events which she declined until, in 1999, the stadium in Laupheim where she grew up was named after her. By then, she had allowed her command of German to fade and made no attempt to speak the language on that sole visit home for a ceremony held in her honour.

At least Lambert’s sport and country made an attempt to atone for destroying her sporting ambitions. Like every aspect of life, sport requires a constant head-swivelling. Sports fans are always looking ahead to the next game or the next major event or the upcoming superstar and to accept as inevitable the insistent and un-ironic hyping behind events which come thick and fast.

But sport itself is constantly forced to gaze backwards, too, in order to try and gain perspective on the illuminating moments which seemed to define certain eras and also to acknowledge just how terribly some of its brightest and best were treated.

Margaret Bergmann in action. Photograph: Getty Images/Bettmann
Margaret Bergmann in action. Photograph: Getty Images/Bettmann

2017 was not a vintage year in sport but produced its share of eye-opening splendours. By now, the Super Bowl of last January is probably a vague memory but #LI was extraordinarily dramatic, with the New England Patriots trailing the Atlanta Falcons 28-3 into the third quarter only to come back and win 34-28 after overtime.

Roger Federer’s eighth Wimbledon title was a stand for thirty-somethings, Serena Williams’s Australian Open win without dropping a set while in her first trimester of pregnancy was a stand for womankind.

It was the year when the McIlroy-Spieth rivalry failed to fire again and when golf turned to Tiger Woods – again. For all the marvels, the year also offered many reasons to lose interest or to despair about sport or to simply decide that what is seen can no longer be believed.

When you place the frivolous approach to the football life of Mendy against the pure brokenness with which Paul Stewart, the former Tottenham and England player, told his story of sexual abuse as a vulnerable teenage footballer in 1980s England, when young stars had no power, which seems like the better atmosphere?

Stewart published a book about his grim experiences this year and it is simply called Damaged. And ‘sport’ has left many damaged. The custodians of US gymnastics, always one of the star turns in every Olympic summer, are right now dealing with the fact that its protégés were abused by a high profile and key staff member before, during and after the Olympics of 2012 and 2016. Different sports and different generations but they serve as warnings about how easy it is to warp an underlying article of faith in sport: trust.

A dejected Cyrus Christie after the second leg of the World Cup playoff against Denmark at the Aviva stadium in November. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
A dejected Cyrus Christie after the second leg of the World Cup playoff against Denmark at the Aviva stadium in November. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

In November, there was much anticipation after the World Cup draw for next summer’s tournament in Russia. Then, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from February’s winter Olympics in Pyeongchang for its state-sponsored doping programmes. Four years ago, the IOC received Russia’s hospitality when it hosted the winter games in Sochi. A year on, it has banned Vitaly Mutko, the minister for sport during Sochi’s glamorous fortnight, from participation in future Olympic Games forever.

But so what? Russia has taken what it needs from the Olympics. Mutko is Russia’s deputy prime minister for sport and heads up the organising committee for next summer’s World Cup. No surprise that Fifa quickly moved to clarify that the IOC ban will affect nothing: it is business as usual for big football. All the while, football associations in all countries shrug as migrant workers toil in Qatar – the hosts of the 2022 World Cup – in appalling conditions.

Closer to home, the Republic of Ireland’s stoic push to qualify for the World Cup came to a sour end with a 5-1 trashing by Denmark. The dismay led to online racist abuse levelled at Cyrus Christie, Ireland’s right back. His team-mate James McClean later said that the comments had left Christie in tears and were sufficiently poisonous that they were reported to the guards. Access to sports stars has never been more remote or orchestrated and yet, contradictorily, it has never been easier for strangers to invade their thoughts with critical or venomous comments.

Anyone who has ever stood listening to Christie for longer than five minutes will appreciate that he is a born gentleman. His elevation to Ireland’s first XI was due to the horrible injury suffered by Séamus Coleman, the country’s most talented defender, in March. Martin O’Neill’s full back options are limited; Christie is athletic, callow and desperate to do his best. For that, he was vilified and abused by a minority of fans.

But at least Christie spoke up. And 2017 will be remembered as the year that people spoke out and spoke up in all walks of life. Sport was no exception. It is almost two years since Colin Kaepernick, the American football quarterback, started a conversation that became global simply by kneeling through the national anthem when he was playing with the San Francisco 49ers. This year, he is in a bizarre situation: lauded by his peers, his symbolic posture famously mimicked by NFL owners but ultimately blackballed by the same league, with no club willing to take him on as a player.

Colin Kaepernick (centre) takes a knee alongside San Franciso 49ers team-mates Eli Harold and Eric Reid. Photograph: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick (centre) takes a knee alongside San Franciso 49ers team-mates Eli Harold and Eric Reid. Photograph: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

For every argument out there that Kaepernick is no longer an NFL quarterback because of the erratic nature of his play, there are 10 statistically-driven counter arguments. The easier path for Kaepernick would have been to keep schtum and sign what would, at 30, have been his last mega-contract and maybe save the social activism until his career was waning.

For he knows, like Benjamin Mendy, that he is among the blessed few to have successfully run the gauntlet of professional sport: one of the very few to make it. You think of the household names – any house, anywhere – Messi, James, Tom Brady, Williams, Federer – and each of them could name you a dozen ghosts: talented ball players they can recall from their formative years who just didn’t make the grade.

Flick on the television at any time of year and watch any sport – US Open tennis, any of the endless golf tournaments, rugby, Champions League football – and you are watching people who have poured so much of their body and soul into achieving excellence that they don’t really have time to figure out who they are. From a perilously young age, they have mentors and then coaches and then sports psychologists and then agents and then marketing strategists telling them who they should be.

“It’s like all of a sudden you’re a big shot,” Margaret Lambert said in an ABC interview on her 100th birthday as she relived those few years when she realised she could high jump better than anyone in her country. And that was in the 1930s. Athletes get caught up. It is only when they reach a certain point that they can, like Kaepernick, step back and begin to think about what is going on beyond the next game.

It is sometimes tempting and perhaps charitable to imagine that Conor McGregor is in the midst of that personal turbulence right now. Ireland is split three ways on the subject of McGregor. To some, he is simply the biggest sports star the country has produced. The Forbes rich list for 2017 won’t disagree. To others, he deviates between disgrace and embarrassment. And to a significant percentage, he simply doesn’t register at all.

Galway captain David Burke lifts the the Liam MacCarthy cup after the All-Ireland hurling final win over Waterford in September. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Galway captain David Burke lifts the the Liam MacCarthy cup after the All-Ireland hurling final win over Waterford in September. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

It seems longer than four months since McGregor baited Floyd Mayweather in the ‘tour’ to hype the so-called fight of the century. A dark unpleasantness hung over an event which generated $440 million by fight fans from both spectrums of the community: UFC fans adamant that their hero could storm the old-world citadel of boxing and boxing fans curious to see how much damage Mayweather might inflict on a novice.

At best, it was a dull fight in which both men saved face before walking away immeasurably richer. The world shrugged and moved on to the next fix. By December, Mayweather was claiming that he “carried” the Irish man in the early rounds of the fight, which could be the opening gambit of a re-match.

Where now for McGregor? There may well be inspiration to be found in his tremendous rise but as the year ends, it’s not the Mayweather fight that people will remember as much as the exchange in Blanchardstown district court where the Notorious appeared, at the third time of asking, to answer the mundane call of a speeding fine.

“I have to ask you a question,” Judge Miriam Walsh advised. “How much do you earn? Please tell me you don’t earn more than 110 million a day?” McGregor laughed as he corrected her. “140 million.”

Already, the moment sounds like one of the anecdotes told to capture the tragic-comic times of George Best. Dana White, the president and only voice of UFC, said at the end of November that he doesn’t know if McGregor will fight in the octagon again. And even if he does, there is already a sense that the Irishman’s rise has been so dizzyingly fast that he is running out of options and places to go, other than those clubs where the ultra-rich spend time pretending that they don’t bore one another to tears. If McGregor stands for anything, it is for a fierce independence: a freedom to do and say whatever he pleases regardless of sense and sensibility. His next trick is to discover something worth saying.

Dublin’s Philly McMahon, Dean Rock and Ciarán Kilkenny celebrate the three-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles after the victory over Mayo at Croke Park in September. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Dublin’s Philly McMahon, Dean Rock and Ciarán Kilkenny celebrate the three-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles after the victory over Mayo at Croke Park in September. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

But the balance of power is tilting to the athletes. It has been a golden decade for Irish rugby predicated on the best local talent staying and playing for the provinces. But money threatens to change that. In early December, Gordon D’Arcy’s column in this publication bore the headline: IRFU has to pay Peter O’Mahony what he wants. Here, then, was the moment where the power struggle in the Irish game tilted: the old threat of losing your Ireland place if you play abroad won’t apply to players of O’Mahony’s calibre. They will decide where they play and dictate their terms.

Who could blame any rugby player from taking the best contract available for what is a brief and fraught professional existence in which they are regarded as appreciating and depreciating assets depending on age and body health? Is it even reasonable to expect them to do otherwise? Hasn’t both the IRFU and Irish rugby fans taken for granted the loyalty of players to province, locality and country?

And as the big sports become ever more lucrative and business minded, the cherished amateur existence of the GAA appears all the more miraculous and strained. In 2017,Galway hurling came screaming out of its 1980s obsession by dominating a hurling summer with controlled fury while Dublin and Mayo served up another All-Ireland football final for the ages: a game that was enthralling from the first minute to the last.

On the surface, Gaelic games has never looked better. And it is fun for the neutral to watch even if there is a nagging sense that the GAA has become a runaway train; its teams trained by coaches who are professional in expertise and ethos; its language of communication hijacked by vapid management-speak and its players stretched the limit. It may be nobody’s fault: the GAA is a big, unwieldy community-based organisation with a centralised staff doing its best to run it according to contemporary fashions and expectations.

Around the country, clubs still sell their lotto tickets and rely on the same faces to make sandwiches, to lock the gate, to clean the changing rooms. And there is a fear now, an anxiety among some GAA people that a crack has appeared in the identity of the association: that it is becoming harder to recognise a culture that, however maddening and moseying, contained within it a kind of indefinable magic which always defied handy description because it was based on a combination of smell and feeling and story-telling. The GAA was never meant to be just a sport.

And it’s like the ice caps. Once all of that melts, once it leaves, it’s gone for good.

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