Belfast Telegraph

I understand why Rory's not going to Rio over Zika virus but I don't admire his decision

By Mary Kenny

Here we go: facing into the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, starting on Friday. Two weeks of non-stop sport for our delectation. As though we hadn't already had a whole summer of sport!

OK - poor old Brazil has had a rough deal: political and financial corruption, an impeached president and the dreadful affliction of the Zika virus. Let them enjoy the glory and limelight of the Olympic flame, even if there are many complaints that the benefits will largely go to the wealthy and not to the downtrodden.

Sport is something we are brought up to value and endorse. And Gaelic games are probably the least affected by the worldwide stench of corruption that touches so many sporting activities, from the shenanigans of Sepp Blatter at FIFA to the systematic doping of athletes evidently undertaken by Russia.

But, while I admire the GAA, the culture of sport, generally, seems to me less than wonderful. Few sportsmen or women seem that admirable. I don't join in with the general heroine-worship of Martina Navratilova, who says dim things like "the only people who don't have to fight for anything in this life are straight, white men". She only need visit a local homeless shelter to meet quite a few straight white men who have all but lost the struggle with life's challenges.

And though I understand Rory McIlroy's refusal to go to Rio because of the Zika virus, since he and his missus are hoping to start a family soon, I still don't admire it. Whatever became of the virtue of valour, which sport was supposed to prompt?

Look at the performance of the England football team at the recent Euros. Deservedly, these millionaires were thrashed by little Iceland - a half-amateur squad with none of the spoilt-brat pretensions of the overpaid and oversexed England players. As for the tribe of women known as 'wags' - the wives and girlfriends in their vulgar bling and fake tan who, so regrettably, are setting a standard for the ambitions of young girls - they are hardly more worthy of respect.

The England team declined to visit the Somme cemeteries during their French sojourn, where better men than they had given their lives in the service of duty. That tells you everything about some of these 'sportsmen' today, corrupted by money, selfishness, vanity and the entitlement culture.

When did the sporting ideal change from the athlete who was supposed to be a model of character as well as skill? I know the late George Best is idolised in Belfast, where an airport is named after him and some Bible Christians say that he repented in his last days and accepted Jesus Christ as his saviour. I don't want to judge a man for his weakness - which of us would pass the test? - but there's a fair probability that Bestie symbolised a turning point when football changed from its model of clean-limbed stoicism to hedonistic celebrity. The booze, the girls and the money that Georgie got through were all headlined with relish, and he became the template for the sporting paladin. How different was the sporting life of the Manchester City player Bert Trautmann, who had been a German paratrooper in the Second World War, developing his football skills as a prisoner-of-war in Lancashire and accepted stoically a constant barrage of anti-German cat-calling from the local crowds. He just went on playing with dignity and purpose, and in 1956 continued in goal to the end of a match despite a broken neck. He was finally recognised as a sporting hero because of his character, and given many awards and standing ovations on the pitch. Throughout his football career he continued working as a modest garage mechanic.

There are admirable people in sport today - the Irish boxer Katie Taylor is one such - and the participants in the Paralympics are inspiring. Yet hardly a week passes without more disclosures about cheating and corruption in sport.

The Tour de France, once celebrated as the sport most available to men of no property - all you needed was a bike - is seldom without its doping scandals. There are even suggestions that testing for illicit drugs in all athletic tournaments should be abolished: let the athletes take whatever chemicals they like - call it the Pharmaceutical Olympics and be done with it!

The problem with the drugs and the corruption is not the testing, but the lack of a sense of honour, of 'fair play' and 'playing the game'.

Big money is now involved in almost all branches of professional sport and ideals of honour have been replaced by winning at any cost. How absurdly Victorian and archaic now are those notions such as "it's not whether you lose or whether you win, but how you play the game", once a metaphor of life, as well as sport.

Yes, let's have a good laugh at Sir Henry Newbolt's corny verse about cricket training a man for life's worst ordeals: "And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,

Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,

But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote,

'Play up! play up! and play the game!'"

That's just not cricket any more!"

Belfast Telegraph


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