Tipping Point: Forget nostalgia, modern sporting greats stand test of any time

Rising standards make it all the harder for exceptional talents to stand out

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi: rather than standards slipping, it is in fact the rising median which only makes it all the harder for even exceptional talent to stand out. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi: rather than standards slipping, it is in fact the rising median which only makes it all the harder for even exceptional talent to stand out. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images.

 

Nostalgia can make liars of us all and sporting nostalgia is a particularly seductive invitation to believe what we want. That it’s relatively harmless makes it even easier to view the past as some exemplar of quality control. And maybe some things were better in the good old days, sometimes. But swallowing the nostalgia line whole is a grey autumnal indulgence which doesn’t add up.

Foostering over tickets for instance is hardly a modern phenomenon. And shameless sleveen cronyism has always been the route to the top of any administration anywhere, particularly for those wheezy boys who never got picked but grew up to slalom around boardrooms like Jean-Claude Killy.

For those under 60, Killy was a French skier who won three Olympic medals and is still famed for the louche glamour he brought to the business of frantically falling down a mountain at speed, although, disappointingly, clips of his progress down various Alps now look comparatively stately. That’s nostalgia for you though.  

The tail end of the GAA season is always good for similar “fado fado” stuff and even though the summer action isn’t quite finished it will still take an outrageous effort to rival Eamon Dunphy’s Euro 2016 beauty which is set to stand the test of time as an example of nostalgia’s capacity to file away reality’s rough edges.

During yet another discussion about the decline of the beautiful game, and its lack of great players, one of the great purveyors of contrarian click-bait colourfully painted a picture of the past that didn’t so much glint though rose-tinted glasses as take us on a spectacularly trippy hark back to a time which has clearly melted into the walls of Eamon’s radiant psyche, man.

“When I was a kid there were 50 guys walking the streets of Dublin with the skills Messi had; and I knew them all. Now you wouldn’t get 50 in Europe, ” he professed wistfully.

Even making allowances for the job of making a point, that’s just barmy. Never mind that the results of the Republic of Ireland football team from the 50s and 60s remain starkly monochrome, belying any idea of a football genius scuffling around every Dublin street corner, there’s a presumption in the statement which reduces the very singularity that makes Messi so special.  

It is actually Messi’s obvious and universally acclaimed brilliance right here, right now which makes a compelling case for the little Argentine being the best to play the game ever; because rather than standards slipping, it is in fact the rising median which only makes it all the harder for even exceptional talent to stand out.

It’s the same in all sport. And yet great performers still emerge. In fact we could actually be bang in the middle of a golden age, baby. Just look at tennis and the handful of exceptional players who have still dominated for a decade despite detailed analysis of every fraction of every movement they’ve ever made. 

For instance, pondering the standards of modern jockeyship after his retirement in 2009, compared to when he started in the 1970s, the great rider Mick Kinane declared general standards to have improved dramatically although more exceptional talents existed when he started out out.

Considering those included legendary names like Piggott, Eddery and Carson, Kinane was indeed talking about talents as exceptional as his own.

But it doesn’t take too many trips down Youtube’s memory lane to establish while Piggott & Co would have shone through in any era, it isn’t just dodgy camera work that can make their actual real-time competition look more than a little agricultural. The cream is there but the gap in standards is so obvious there’s little problem distinguishing it from the skim.

That’s not the case anymore. It’s not just in racing that standards have improved so radically, and it’s not even just in professional sport either.

Gaelic games at all levels have been transformed by the application of dietary science and individualised fitness programmes which lose little in relation to what full-time athletes undergo and which makes the demands on these unpaid players all the more remarkable.

The outcome is a general baseline of fitness and proficiency that is literally in another era compared to when Christy Ring’s competitors could have macrobiotic regimes consisting of “hang” sandwiches and 20 Sweet Afton.

 Those who saw Ring in action might insist he was a genius. But they can hardly argue it was harder for that genius to shine when monastic devotion wasn’t the norm. It was for Henry Shefflin and he still left no one in doubt they were watching a truly exceptional player.

 The contrast to the days of George Best’s superiority of talent being so overwhelming that it was obvious even when he was half-cut is stark. It might have been more fun in Georgie’s day but don’t let anyone pretend Messi’s capacity to stand out doesn’t exceed the myth.  

It’s the same with Dan Carter in comparison to rugby giants of the past, who only get more gargantuan with every passing nostalgic year; or Colm Cooper in Gaelic football, Richie Hogan with a hurley, or Ruby Walsh on a horse.

No doubt in time nostalgia will also do its number on such figures too. Maybe weird algorithmic technology will make their careers seem as quaint as Ringy’s. But it’s enough to know that such exceptional sportspeople are around, better than ever, and can be properly acknowledged and appreciated in the here and now.

They’re hardly walking around the streets of Dublin in groups of 50. But the reality is they never were.

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