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Let amateur GAA players have a life

By Declan Bogue

On May 4, 1994, a number of extraordinary men gathered together in London's Grosvenor House Hotel for a jubilee occasion with a difference.

It had been 40 years to the day that Roger Bannister had smashed the aura of impossibility that was the four minute mile. This was a gathering of the men that had achieved it since.

The evening was immortalised in a Sports Illustrated magazine article by Gary Smith. He contrasted the approach taken by rival John Landy and Bannister with the lines, "Landy, the Australian, pounding out 15 and 20-mile workouts in pursuit of the record while Bannister, the ultimate amateur (who worked as a neurologist), whisked off his white medical student's smock, dashed from St Mary's Hospital in London to the tube to squeeze in 30-minute sessions at lunch".

Landy was a professional athlete, though shy and retiring. Forty-six days after Bannister broke the four-minute mark, Landy managed to set a new world record of 3:58.

The confidence of his athletic success led him to try out life for size. He taught science and ran a cattle and sheep farm. He was Technical Director of Melbourne's bid to host the 1996 Olympics. Wrote two books on natural history and so, so much more.

His involvement in sport equipped him.

We hold that example up against a harsh glare of the unintentionally hilarious, depressing and rather sinister 'player contract' that was leaked from the St Brigid's club in Dublin, about what is expected among the senior players of the club.

Nonsense such as;

• I will tog out in the dressing room beforehand and go back to it afterwards.

• All holidays must be agreed in advance with management and only taken during breaks in the season.

There is also an expectation that players will be rostered to help out with the club's Academy.

At the bottom is some disgusting legalese about understanding what the contract is and failure to comply with the wishes 'could mean my removal from the senior panel'.

Just above it, is the utterly embarrassing line that 'we will have the craic along the way'.

What is most troubling about the document is just how pervasive and all-consuming it wants to be over the lives of players.

The addition of strength and conditioning to Gaelic games and the trickle down to club level, has added another level of commitment not previously required.

It is at this point though, when we should realistically ask if playing GAA is ultimately damaging to the perspective of the individual. Is it equipping them for life, or merely sucking the marrow out of young men?

Is it right that under-14s are now on strength and conditioning programmes?

And we get it when Tyrone boss Mickey Harte says that his hardest thing is convincing some players not to train some nights, to hold something back.

But there is more to life than playing sport. And when the professional athletes have far more downtime than the amateurs, then the balance is all wrong.

Worse still for the players, they are held to the highest possible standards on live television by pundits. A goalkeeper fumbling a catch can land himself a couple of weeks of ridicule, for example.

And what is the trade-off for players?

In that Smith article, a revealing moment comes when Bannister, the first 'miler', walked the last 40 metres of the track with the then-holder, the Algerian Noureddine Morceli.

Smith noted of Bannister, "His crusading cry as a runner had been that the athlete was just a sliver of the whole man".

Bannister asked Morceli what he would do when he was 35. Morceli had no idea but eagerly fastened onto Bannister's suggestion that he might coach.

That's the trouble with tunnel vision.

Belfast Telegraph

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