Belfast Telegraph

How sport has power to make champions of every one of us

By Mike Gilson

Sport really does have the power to unite and inspire, doesn't it? It's not just a sugary old cliche. I was thinking about that at our sports awards on Monday night as a host of stars received well-deserved awards.

To a man and woman, all were humble people, grateful for their talents, but prepared to put the hard yards in to make sure they exploit them to the full.

It was fantastic to see Antrim GAA star Anto Finnegan receive his Local Heroes Award from Tyrone boss Mickey Harte to a standing ovation. Of course, Anto will always be remembered as a great player, but he's also rightly receiving plaudits now for his fight against motor neurone disease, with which he was diagnosed a couple of years ago, and the charity he's set up to raise cash to fund care and research into it.

Up on the stage, Mickey was asked by our lovely host Claire McCollum how the GAA family had rallied around the star. Without pausing for breath, Mickey reminded everyone that it wasn't just GAA, but all sport that was supporting Anto.

The thousands who packed out Ravenhill for his Game For Anto charity match last year - GAA fans flocking into the home of Ulster Rugby, perhaps for the first time - was testament to that. The rest of us who dabble in sport can't hope to match any of those heights, but taking time out to run, row, punch, kick or stroke a couple of times a week gives us something special - our sanity.

I used to play football until I was 40 (far too old for a young man's game) and my ankle gave way, and then took up tennis seriously. I love it. A week can't go by without me playing at least two games up at the Windsor club in Belfast.

When I step over that line the stresses of the rest of life are replaced by nothing more than the need to beat the guy over the other side of the net.

We might have a friendly beer afterwards, but nothing else matters for now but attempting to pound him into the court. It is wonderfully therapeutic.

I'm shortly leaving Belfast and so I won't be able to spar with my regular partners for much longer. On Saturday we had a testimonial tournament to mark my departure and, amid all the dodgy line calls and creaking joints, we played as if our lives depended on it. That's what sport means.

Later, over too many bottles of red wine, the talk was only of titanic matches played down the years with the statistically dubious conclusion that we'd all won more games then we'd lost against each other. Discussions of work and world affairs were for another day.

So John, Pat, Martin, David L, Paul and Don, I salute you. It's probably too late for any of us to be called up to the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards stage, but in our own little world you were all champions.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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