Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Sportsmen like William Dunlop dying in their prime is something we struggle to comprehend

 

By Declan Bogue

It was somewhere near Naas on the way back from Portlaoise, during the half-time break of the Kildare-Fermanagh broadcast that I heard Des Cahill break the news on RTÉ Radio of William Dunlop's death at the Skerries 100 Road Race.

As is the case in these circumstances, disbelief is hard to conquer. Sportsmen dying in their prime is something that we all struggle to comprehend.

As journalists, there is a curious sense of a relationship between the observer and the subject. There is a school of thought that writers should live by the creedo of the title of Jerome Holtzman's collection of sporting essays and columns; 'No Cheering from the Press Box', but it takes a cold fish to stay true to it.

After all, the vast majority of sports journalists began with a love of the sports themselves, the same childhood imaginations and heroes that the narrative is ready-made to supply.

As you get older and more cynical, you realise the extent of this triumph of manufacturing and marketing. Some sports such as boxing have no interest in solely finding the best fighters for a 'competition', but the most marketable in order to shift units.

At the highest level, football has overtaken all others in the ruthless pursuit of mammon.

The corruptions and dirty dealing over World Cup bids, the greed of delegates with a vote and the sheer brass neck of an operation that would stage a World Cup in the Middle East, built on the deaths of migrant workers, leaves you to despair of their lack of humanity.

Some sports remain earthier. The less mass appeal, the more accessible the sportsman. And when people are true to their roots, we live in one another's shelter.

That's why one of the finest compliments paid to William was by Stephen Davison, the motorcycling journalist and photographer who tweeted: 'But the nicest thing about William was the way he always looked down and started to kick the stones when you paid him a compliment.'

As it happens, when Des Cahill broke the news, I was on my journey back home from the All-Ireland Round Four qualifiers with former Tyrone footballer and BBC Radio Ulster pundit Enda McGinley.

My first thoughts were of Cormac McAnallen, the young Tyrone captain who died in the middle of the night in February 2004.

And yet, so big is his legacy now, that I never made the connection; McGinley had spent the better half of a decade in the same dressing room as him.

It was only 14 years ago, but it seems like another lifetime ago when that happened. I myself found out after paying a visit to an Internet café - surely a relic of a bygone age - the day after attending the Formula One Melbourne Grand Prix.

Another man from back home came in and asked had I heard? It took reading several newspaper reports there and then to accept that this could happen.

Many have gone before and since, but it doesn't lessen the impact.

When it comes to a member of the Dunlop clan, it's like a sick, inevitable dread. How much more can one family take?

And this is where I and others depart in how we perceive motorcycle racing. I just cannot believe in it as a sport.

I've made an effort not just to blindly dismiss it. I have watched and enormously enjoyed various documentaries and interviews about racing. I have attended the North West 200. But I sense that in 100 years' time, our ancestors will look back at road racing and ask how that was allowed, in a similar way that we ask how bare-knuckle boxing thrived.

When the most talented and experienced exponents of an area of competition are wiped out, just as the previous generation of the same family, then such is the element of chance around it, the credibility is stretched.

It's over 100 years now, and was written in a time of point-to-point runs but the AE Housman poem; 'To An Athlete Dying Young' captures the dichotomy of all of this. It captures the image of the athlete in action - the image of a champion involved in his or her craft.

The first verse is a reflection of the triumph;

'The time you won your town the race,

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high'

The second, a description of the funeral;

'Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.'

To the onlooker, the fan, the journalist, a sportsman at his work appears untouchable. Bills, relationships, worries and anxieties could simply not exist in the Nirvana they occupy when they reach a state of flow.

Unburdened by strains, talented, they have a sheen of perfection. Nothing can touch them. None of that is true of course, but it is how it seems to us in that particular moment.

That's why when children dream of being the next Bryan Robson, or Peter Canavan, or William Dunlop; it's not being that person as they stand at the washing machine putting a load on, but in their prime as sportsmen, executing skills under immense pressure.

Around Ballymoney and the wider north Antrim community, their boy is coming home to Garryduff Presbyterian Church this afternoon.

Townsman of a stiller town.

Belfast Telegraph

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