I’m showing my age, but does anybody remember Chubby Checker? Ah, you do. No, not the Welsh prop forward from the 1970s.
The American singer, often referred to as the father of ‘the twist’, a dance style that came out of Chubby’s hits ‘The Twist’ (1960) and ‘Let’s Twist Again’ (1961).
I was thinking of Chubby the other day, when reading yet another contortion in the coverage of the Irish rugby team.
In 2017 and 2018, the Irish rugby team (aka The People’s Team) were world-beaters. Let’s twist again: bring on the World Cup, we’ll crush it.
In early 2019, we ship losses at home to England and away to Wales. Let’s twist again: ah, well, turns out we’re still fairly crap.
In August 2019, we are hammered by England. Let’s twist again: no point in even going to Japan.
We (The Team of Us) beat Scotland well in the first game. Let’s twist again: we might make the final, who knows?
We (The Team of Them) are turned over by Japan and have an uninspiring win against Russia.
Let’s twist again: we might as well go home.
Dizzy yet? I am.
This isn’t pushback against rugby or its coverage, both of which I love. It appears that in all sports, there is now nowhere between being world beaters or being total losers.
Everything balanced or moderate or considered or fun in sport is being sucked out by a big black hole.
If there’s one recent trend that gets on my goat, it’s THE GOAT (Ed: curmudgeon alert).
THE GOAT and its cranky cousin THE WOAT (sorry about the capital letters, I know they cause headaches) are sure signs that the extremist algorithms in our phones have leaked into our heads.
We are undergoing mass conversion to the cult of WIN BIGLY OR NOTHING! (last time, I promise).
But sport isn’t really about winning at all. That’s a myth. The pervasive experience in sport is losing.
Joyce Carol Oates (in her exquisite book On Boxing) writes about the pyramid of winning and losing. There is only one at the top, but many, many, losers on the way down, ‘shading out into the anonymous subsoil of humanity’.
In a tennis tournament with 120 players, 119 will lose. That’s over 99% of losers to less than 1% of winners. In an elite championship — say Wimbledon — for every player who makes it there, another 200 serious players have not. So, in fact, for one winner (there can only be one), there are 23,999 losers.
It gets worse if you include the millions watching. We, the fans, participate in championships, too. They wouldn’t exist without us and our (unfulfilled) childhood dreams of playing in them.
The point of this isn’t to rub noses in the fact that almost everyone in sport is losing. The point is that it doesn’t matter.
The point is that there’s a game and something wonderful and mysterious is happening inside it. The Ancient Greeks called it the agôn, or struggle, and they built art around it.
During the game, something is also happening inside us, and that something is the whole point of sport. It’s more than enough and nothing else matters nearly as much.
Addendum: Kudos to the shocked Irish fans in Shizuoka, last Saturday week, and the magnanimity they showed to the weeping Japanese supporters. Turns out we’re not all losers after all.
Au contraire, as Samuel Beckett replied, when asked if England were going to win the Rugby World Cup.
Oh, let’s twist again: twisting time is here.
Best of luck to all the new managers, selectors and coaches who volunteered to take over the Cork hurling teams for 2020.
I’m in awe of these people.
Now, I’m sure, come next summer, I’ll be whingeing, along with many others, at team selections and tactics but, before I do, I might just park my sense of entitlement for a moment.
Entitlement to being entertained, being inspired, being thrilled, being emotional, being filled with wonder by hurling, year in and year out – game in and game out.
We are privileged in the county of Cork (and in other counties) to have so many willing, qualified and energetic people to develop teams and prepare them as well as they possibly can.
I haven’t earned the right to be disparaging, either of the County Board or their choice of managers, selectors and coaches announced last week.
I’m not easily shocked anymore. Living with those two tow-headed (natural or not) gobdaws in Impeachland and Brexitland would inure the touchiest of souls against outrage.
But when it comes to cheating in sport, we have to muster our anger and indignation every single time, to counter any possible fatigue or normalisation.
Hence the grim satisfaction at the four-year ban of Alberto Salazar for ‘orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping conduct’ this week. If only it were a lifetime ban.
Hopefully, it will bring an end to his involvement in sport — that his ‘brand’ will be so toxic as to deter any athlete from associating with him in future.
And hopefully it will facilitate a continued spotlight on cheating, in all its forms.
Sport is a form of play, which we first learn to do as babies when we look into our mothers’ smiling eyes and smile back.
In playing sport (note the verb), we enter into a solemn contract that we will follow the rules of the game (note the noun).
If we don’t — if we cheat — we are no longer playing and what we are doing is no longer sport.
When cheating happens, sport doesn’t exist any more. Cheating doesn’t demean sport, cheating obliterates it.
Cheating renders sport into something else entirely, something far closer to George Orwell’s view, that it is ‘a training ground for elitist bullies who would go on to use their experiences within sport to promote violence and conflict in later life.’
A view I don’t accept, however wonderful Orwell’s prose happens to be.
The book that blew me away this year was Amateur, a memoir by Thomas Page McBee.
It recounts how he — a transgender man — fought in a boxing match in Madison Square Garden in 2015. The book has taught me more about masculinity than anything I’ve read, heard, or experienced before.
He writes about his opponent: ‘The truth was, I loved him even as I danced around him with my hands in the air.’ The purity of revelation in that statement floored me.
We have a lot to learn about men and sport and McBee’s experiences provide stunning perspectives and insights.
Please send suggestions for books about masculinity on the back of a humidity-stained Shota Hori jersey (IN CAPITAL LETTERS ONLY) to Tadhg Coakley c/o The Irish Examiner.
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