When it comes to the phenomenon that is Katie Taylor, the key word is perspective.
She’s our one gold medal probable heading into these Olympics. Win it and she’ll be hailed by the masses here as “our greatest sportsperson ever”. Should she fail to win it, well then she’ll have to deal with the C word.
The critics and the cynics love that C word. Colm Cooper is the greatest Gaelic footballer most of us have ever seen, played in eight All-Ireland finals, but one well-known commentator from Derry dismissed him at the weekend as a choker because he didn’t perform in a club championship game. Greg Norman won two majors in his career but people tend to harp on about those he didn’t, especially The Choke at the ’96 Masters. All over the world, people seemed to revel in how protracted and agonising LeBron James’ quest for an NBA title was.
Should Katie fail to deliver the gold, she’ll get the choke tag just like the rest of them.
The spectre of such a possibility would be too much for most but luckily Taylor and her family have perspective. Last year this columnist had the pleasure of interviewing her. It was impossible not to be impressed by her modesty, beauty, honesty, and above all, solid sense of self. As important as boxing was to her, she wasn’t going to let herself be defined by it. She was a Christian, a daughter, a sister, not just a boxer.
When asked the inevitable question about London, she said softly: “All I can do is my best. At the end of the day, my legacy doesn’t depend on whether I win an Olympic gold medal or not. I’ve already done so well throughout the last few years. This is just a dream that I have, a goal that I have, so I’m going to train as hard as I can and try my best. Whatever happens — win, lose or draw — I know it’s God’s will.”
With an outlook like that, she is nearly certain to win gold. As her coach and father Peter often reminds her as she’s about to go into that ring, this is fun, this is showtime. The goal is ultimately hers, not ours, and realising that should free her up to perform.
Should Katie deliver gold, the nation will go to the other extreme and herald her as probably our greatest athlete ever. Again, perspective will have gone AWOL. Women’s boxing isn’t just a new sport, globally it’s a tiny sport. Taylor has been instrumental in increasing its popularity, her talent converting Barry McGuigan from being a vocal opponent of female boxing to being an ardent fan and a friend of Taylor.
But there’s one thing being dominant in one division in a minority sport and being prominent in a global sport, like athletics as Sonia O’Sullivan was for a whole decade.
An old colleague of mine, Dave Hannigan, made an interesting observation in a recent article. A resident now in Long Island, New York, he passed through a neighbouring town after the 2008 Olympics where he drove past a sign reading ‘Congratulations on your medals, Julia Smit’, the kind of sign you’d see in any Irish town saluting a couple of players who might have made a county U21B final or county minor team. A google search informed him that Julia won a bronze and silver medal in swimming in Beijing, yet an informed sportswriter living only five miles down the road hadn’t known about it.
Think they’ll know in that town who Katie is? But most of America knew who Eamon Coghlan was. Most of Europe knew who Sean Kelly was. The whole world knows who Roy Keane, Pádraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy are. They’re global stars in global sports and to elevate Katie ahead of the likes of them does a disservice to everyone.
Katie though is amongst our greatest ever sportspeople in the truest sense of the term. We looked at Saturday’s All-Ireland football qualifier from Killarney and it was depressing to see the two best teams of the past decade resort to such persistent gamesmanship. Katie Taylor has never mocked or belittled an opponent. Winning doesn’t mean everything to her. At the 2010 world championships she was prepared to walk away from them if the powers-that-be insisted all female boxers wear skirts in the ring in an attempt to sex up the sport.
When Taylor spoke up, the authorities backed down, but Taylor would have been willing to walk away from the Olympics if the authorities tried it on again.
As her father Pete said: “We’ve got morals that go above marketing.”
Four years ago, heading to Beijing, Billy Walsh’s boxing team had a goal beyond winning medals. Their goal was to shine. In how they carried themselves and conducted themselves, outside the ring as well as in it. Katie Taylor’s being radiates a similar grandeur.
Olympic medal or not, she will shine at these games and long after them.
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