Michael Clifford: Lamenting loss of a sporting summer

The role of sport in society got two outings during the week, writes Michael Clifford

Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern can’t hide his excitement at the prospect of the Bertie Bowl, during a press conference in 2000. How the world has changed since.  	Picture: Andrew Paton Inpho
Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern can’t hide his excitement at the prospect of the Bertie Bowl, during a press conference in 2000. How the world has changed since. Picture: Andrew Paton Inpho

On Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar effectively announced that high summer has been cancelled, and with it a whole calendar of sporting events that ripple out way beyond any playing arena. 

Later that evening, a programme on RTÉ demonstrated how sport can be used to facilitate oversized egos and lunatic impulses.

Varadkar’s announcement, that gatherings in excess of 5,000 will not be permitted this side of September, was shocking but not surprising. 

There can be little argument with it. 

The first duty in responding to the current emergency is to protect lives. And mass gatherings provide fertile breeding ground for the virus. But the announcement that the summer as we know it has been cancelled still resonates with shock.

There are many prisms through which to view this departure, but take one that will impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands around this island — the GAA championship. 

In recent decades the championship has taken on a life of its own in the summer. 

The modern format involving groups and back doors has given the summer a rhythm of its own, stretching from the month of May, up to a high peak in late July/early August, all the way to the penultimate stages and the finals.

Over those months, towns around the island pulse with the influx of patrons for big games and small. There is often a carnival atmosphere. There is always the injection of money to circulate in local economies. And there is usually the kind of passion that will always raise an occasions well beyond the aesthetic attractions of the games. 

This is, as the ad says, about the minor championship, major.

From a personal point of view, there are few higher moments in the summer than those that precede the throw-in at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney. 

On a good day, the sun is in its pomp in a blue sky where a few stray clouds linger like melting daubs of ice cream. 

McGillicuddy is watching over his Reeks out beyond the steeple of St Mary’s Cathedral. A teenager in a funny hat is ascending the terrace flogging Choc Ices and throwaway earphones. Two lads are pushing past, already sweating out the half gallon they sank down the town in the preceding 90 minutes.

For those moments, the world outside this cocoon does not exist. 

There is a game about to unfold, a page of history to be written, after which the crowds will move in a great wave back down into the town, into the pubs, into cars that will clog up every artery leading in every direction, all clinging to the occasion for a few hours more before life bursts through again.

For the summer faithful, there is also the matter of moods.

When the county wins, all that ails your world can be set aside until sometime in the AM on Monday. 

A loss will puncture even the best of moods, drawing a dark cloud over the remainder of the weekend, as the game is replayed in the mind’s eye for hours on end.

These are the treasured interludes that will be absent this year.

For businesses in all county towns, another chance to store up for the darker days of winter is missed. The history books recording who managed what in the championship of 2020 will, at the very least, have to be filled in later on.

The championship is among the many events and gatherings that this year fall victim to the virus.

Music, arts and other sporting festivals and occasions are also gone by the wayside.

There are, of course, more important things at issue now, principally preserving life. 

There is, however, no denying that the medium-term restrictions on what constitutes the froth of life is having a major impact on the country’s wellbeing.

While the absence of major sporting events this summer reminds us of their intrinsic value, a glance in the rearview mirror during the week recalled a time when sport was nearly brought into disrepute.

The Scannal series looked back at the halcyon days of 2001-02 when one of the main topics of discussion was whether or not to build a national stadium, appropriately called the ‘Bertie Bowl’.

The country was awash with money, apparently. Separately, the three sporting organisations, the GAA, IRFU, and the FAI all had plans to redevelop, in the case of the first two, or build, as was the plan with the FAI, their own stadiums.

Yet despite this wealth of emporia, the taoiseach of the day, Bertie Ahern, wanted a “national stadium” built as well.

And he wasn’t alone.

His finance minister, Charlie McCreevy commented on the plan at the time: “I would regard a national stadium as important a part of infrastructure as a highway or a museum or national gallery.”

Speaking to Scannal, Ahern attempted to portray sport as a neglected entity in government. “You will always find this when you’re fighting for sport,” he said.

“They will go down to a hospital and find a 90-year-old woman on a trolley and say this guy wants to build a sports stadium.”

In reality, sport did extremely well out of the Ahern-McCreevy axis. 

The amounts shovelled into horse racing and greyhounds in particular were jaw-dropping, not to mention sport in general. 

Contrary to the bleatings of these two lads, it was the arts that then, and even today, has always been the poor relation when it comes to funding, simply because the main people around the cabinet table can’t relate to it.

In the end, common sense prevailed and the Bertie Bowl never saw the light of day.

Michael McDowell, at the time, compared the plan to something from the Ceausescu era, when the former Romanian dictator had various infrastructure named in his own honour.

On Scannal, Ahern made a reference to people who had never been to Croke Park and were objecting to his bowl as “smoked salmon, wine-drinking people”.

It is unclear whether he was referring to McDowell but it is also unclear where Ahern had been for the last 30 or so years, during which time wine achieved mass appeal and even discount chainstores were firing out smoked salmon like there was no tomorrow.

What is obvious is that the former taoiseach has not got over the failure to have a white elephant built as a lasting legacy of his time in power.

It was all a surreal blast from the past and makes you realise how the country was, on one level, on a different planet way back then.

More on this topic

Higgins pays tribute to 'remarkable' nurses' response to Covid-19 crisisHiggins pays tribute to 'remarkable' nurses' response to Covid-19 crisis

Nine further Covid-19 deaths and 24 new cases - NPHETNine further Covid-19 deaths and 24 new cases - NPHET

Coronavirus wrap: Matchday protocols emerge while Djokovic casts US Open doubtsCoronavirus wrap: Matchday protocols emerge while Djokovic casts US Open doubts

How male-centric medicine endangers women’s health - and what we can do about itHow male-centric medicine endangers women’s health - and what we can do about it