We hear much about the magic of sport, but after a week like this might it be worth reflecting on what has become of that other great sport of magic?
Admit it; there was a time you liked it… not a lot, but you liked it. Daniels, Copperfield, Penn & Teller. Blaine before he pulled off the ultimate trick and managed to make a virtue and a living out of sitting around doing nothing. Like Steve Harper.
Maybe the tricksters’ boom came in the 1990s, when whistle-blowers like the Masked Magician were also operating a thriving sideshow trying to expose them. Now the magic is as good as gone. But the tricksters must yearn now for the glory days when people wondered how they did it.
This week, some people are saying that the last of the magic also died for those tricksters who can pull a rabbit out of a hat on the track, then beat it to the tape.
When we heard that two more of the world’s fastest had tested positive, and when they couldn’t even muster a decent conspiracy yarn between them, many threw up their hands in despair and accused them of running the sport to a standstill.
Let down not by a masked magician, but maybe by masking agents.
But could it be that all athletic pursuits will, eventually, look back fondly on these glory days when people at least wondered how they did it? As the week’s machinations at the Tour de France hinted, might there yet be a bleaker prospect in store; when every eye-catching effort is neatly explained by physiological data and becomes a cold product of stuff like VO2Max, power output and T/E ratio? They are calling this one the Tour of Doubt, but this week L’Equipe, having crunched Chris Froome’s numbers, concluded ‘his performances are coherent’.
Might talk like that yet prove the greatest passion killer of all in sport? Reducing heroics to biomechanics might eventually clean things up, but does the punter really want to consider whether a performance ‘fell within permissible limits of the athlete’s established levels?’
Surely the day we can look at a man breaking his heart up and down mountains for three weeks and think; ‘yeah, that’s pretty standard considering his wattage margin’, is the day we might as well throw the hat at it altogether.
How much less interesting will be the Tour of Coherence?
Most tragically of all, this downbeat intrusion of science will surely put an end to that reliable staple of all sports movies; the training montage. Why bother compiling inspirational sequences featuring hapless underdogs readying themselves for eventual glory by running up steps to the urgings of Bob Seger, if the denouement is a roomful of journalists poring over output data and frowning about inhuman improvement? With Goliath on the ground, do we really want to check David’s biological passport before pronouncing a final verdict? We once had two choices when it came to considering magnificence. There was natural scepticism and then there was wonder and faith — the Jimmy Magee way.
As Jimmy once put it while issuing Michelle Smith an official Memory Man pardon: "Say you find that all your heroes; Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Emile Zatopek, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gili, and even back as far as Jesus Christ, that they were all on something, do you just cancel them all?"
We will soon, it seems, be obliged to find a third way. The work of JC might still require a little faith, but science and logic should take care of the rest. Zatopek – oxygen efficient; Gili – consistently hit his high Cs; Presley – flexible hip rotator muscles.
Soon we will know exactly how all of our heroes did it. And maybe all of the performances will, one day, be coherent. But when a no-hoper can no longer keep something up his sleeve for the big one, will sport’s magic circle be forever broken?
Fans pitch in, but Limerick keep emotions in check
The scientists are probably still some way off devising a reliable profile of a top-class hurler. Sure, the lads rely too on their VO2Max and you could probably do something with dexterity function, but it should always prove difficult to quantify the required degree of madness.
But we have, at least, an accepted metric for supporter emotion — number of people on the pitch at the final whistle.
Of course there can be no real comparison with tougher times, when wire and other obstacles had to be negotiated before a hurler on the ditch could take up his rightful place on centre stage. But then preparing for victory last Sunday by smuggling in bolt cutters, like some of the great famine-enders had to, might have demanded a confidence Limerick don’t yet have.
Maybe the most impressive thing about Limerick was their clear eyes on a day when hearts were full.
Afterwards, Cyril Farrell tried, in his unique way, to sum up the performance. "They hip it and whip it. They shift everything. Like a small JCB… like a tidal wave coming."
And there was plenty of the traditional Limerick cut and thrust on offer, but this victory was more mechanical than elemental. A big JCB, as such.
Many of Limerick’s finest efforts have come when backed into a corner, in great surges of adrenaline and released panache, often triggered by the departure of hope.
Sunday was different. Pa Horgan’s strange red card could have poured the concrete of hope into their boots. But in the second half they were ruthlessly calculated in dismantling the Cork challenge.
That clarity of purpose might carry them further than emotion.
Dignified Mathews calls the tune
Donal O’Grady’s rendition of Limerick, You’re a Lady probably slots into mid-table on a choral league topped by Joe McDonagh and propped up by Michael Murphy.
But the standout musical choice of last week came from new Commonwealth lightweight champ Derry Mathews, whose selection of walk-on tune departed wildly from the customary modern diet of boastful hip-hop.
Ring entrance music has always tended to spell out its intentions, even in slightly camper times when Eubank strutted out to Simply The Best or Larry Holmes insisted there Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.
Mathews has, however, struck a rather lower key than most, emerging on Sky Sports to the unmistakably ’80s strains of Deacon Blue’s Dignity, a gently optimistic ballad of a litter collector putting up with hard times so he can save up for a boat and sail into the sunset.
But, sure enough, the Scouser took a pounding for nine rounds before knocking out Tommy Coyle in the tenth, then hailed his conquest as the better man.
Dignified all around.
HEROES & VILLAINS
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Brendan Rodgers: For now at least, honesty is the best policy on the Brendan voyage: "Of course Luis wants to work and play at the top level. But unless something drastic happens, he will be staying here."
European Court of Justice: I’m still considering this week’s findings on cartels in the elevator and escalator markets, but the lads in Luxembourg are keeping the World Cup on free-to-air TV and that’s the main thing.
Barney Breen: The Leitrim manager was good for the quote of the week after shipping 8-13 against Armagh: "The goals killed us."
TO HELL IN A HANDCART
Big Ron: Haven’t seen a minute of Big Brother since 2003, but there’s a real danger Ron could drag me back in. A worry.