It’s nearly Christmas which, in sporting terms, means tonnes of cricket beamed into our windswept homes from sunnier climes, endless darts from the Ally Pally and a raft of annual reviews and awards to remind us of just how much memorable sport we watched in 2013 but aren’t now that the sector is staging its annual go-slow.
RTÉ will deliver its ‘Best of’ offering tomorrow evening, the BBC has already decided that the sour Scot Andy Murray is their ‘Personality of the Year’ while Sports Illustrated has declared Denver Broncos quarterback Payton Manning to be primus inter pares among the good and great that vie for divine status and dollars in the US.
They are harmless enough affairs, all told, handy mass marketing tools that look to feed off our positive endorphins one last time, though the events which prompted the latest baubles and titles have long since passed — and all this on the back of an imperfect science that essentially seeks to compare apples with oranges. Or, as in our case, Rob Heffernan’s world title with Martyn Irvine’s.
You tend to hear all sorts of loose phrases bandied about, too. Legendary. Heroic. Superstar. Role model. That last one has always been a hostage to fortune when it comes to sportsmen and women, a sobriquet that can be used to hammer someone when they sin just as easily as hail them when they succeed, but then we have always invested far too much weight on people who basically play games for a living.
Murray, it seems, is the perfect example of that.
Figures released by Sport England earlier this month showed that 39,000 less people were playing tennis once a week across the water than was the case 12 months previously, and that despite the fact Murray has just become the first Briton to win Wimbledon since good old Fred Perry pounded Gottfried von Cramm for a third time in the 1936 final.
That takes some figuring, even allowing for the possibility that a raft of ardent tennis players/fans went a bit too heavy on the Pimms last summer and never got round to donning the whites again, but it seems that one of our key assumptions as to why we play the sports we do has been nothing more than just that — an assumption.
It is four years since a trio of University of Hamburg academics — Arne Feddersen, Sven Jacobsen and Wolfgang Meannig — went some way to exploding the myth that our sporting heroes have a defining role in whether us mere mortals pick up a racket or kick a ball when they released a paper on the effect Boris Becker, Steffi Graf and Michael Stich had on the volume of Germans playing tennis.
One of the conclusions they reached was that the number of ordinary Johanns whacking a fuzzy yellow ball over a club net actually dropped while those three stars were at their peak in the late 1980s and early ’90s. They called it ‘The (Double) Paradox of the German Tennis Boom’ and it jars with everything we have held dear since our childhoods when we commentated on our own games and dreamed of emulating our heroes.
It is a theory that will seem plain wrong as we trawl back through shots of the sporting year — at Heffernan’s triumph in Moscow, Clare’s success in Croke Park or AP McCoy’s 4,000th winner — and the approaching raft of recaps on the year just gone will only reaffirm for us the fact that sport is not about hard facts but raw emotions and no amount of academic research will change that.
Funds, strategies, volunteers and expertise are all essential in shepherding people towards lives of sport and exercise — and more and more of us are doing just that, according to the Irish Sports Council and ESRI report released this week — but where would we be without the spark provided by those who do it best?
Turn on your TV for any length of time this next few weeks and sooner or later you are likely to be treated to recorded moments of rare magic: Simon Zebo’s audacious flick in Cardiff, Domhnall O’Donovan’s equaliser for Clare in September’s drawn hurling final or any of the blows that landed Jason Quigley a European boxing title among them.
“I’m not a role model,” said the former NBA great Charles Barkley once upon a time. “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
That much is true, but it doesn’t mean our kids shouldn’t seek to emulate what it is they do so well. And, as we will see on TV tomorrow, Ireland is not short of sportsmen and women who do that.