How we participate in sport, how we celebrate it and support it, how we embed it in its myriad expressions in our culture says a lot more about a society than its GDP, its divorce rate or its industrial productivity levels — even though some of those occasionally important measurements might be nudged in one direction or another by the fallout from Wednesday night’s heroics in Lille where Ireland — population 4.6 million — team beat Italy — population 60m — to set up a Euro 2016 last 16 game against France — population 66m — in Lyon in a little over 48 hours.
Those who cling to the you’ll-never-beat-the-Irish rallying call, despite some evidence to the contrary, may not have been surprised at that wonderful, warming achievement, and the opportunity it brings to avenge Thierry Henry’s cruel handiwork, but the status quo of European soccer hardly anticipated it. For the next two days — at least — anything will seem possible proving again that the opportunity to hope against all the odds is one of the great gifts of sport.
Though hope has little enough to do with outcomes at the highest levels of professional sport Shane Lowry must long for another opportunity like the one he had on a balmy Pennsylvania afternoon at Oakmont’s US Open last weekend. He led the field for so long that his eventual bridesmaid’s role will haunt him until he adds to the hugely impressive roll of honour built up by Irish golfers over recent years.
Those who must regularly compete with Tipperary-based racehorse trainer Aiden O’Brien must be allowed the refuge of hope though — the hope that he might get bored of being such a dominant force and retire, though that dream must be tempered by the fact that his son James seems set to emulate his career. And what spectacular career of achievement it is. At the recent Royal Ascot festival Aidan O’Brien led the way as a record of 10 Irish-trained winners was set. The Ballydoyle magician beat his best of six winners, set in 2008, with a total to seven for the week and 55 winners in all at the meeting. We may take these achievements for granted but they, make no mistake, represent unprecedented and persistent excellence at the very highest level of sport and business.
And there’s still more! Tomorrow Ireland’s rugby team takes on South Africa — population 53m — in a test-series decider at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. It is, by any measure, more than spectacular that a small country like this, where rugby is not one of the very top sports, can challenge one of the world’s superpowers of the game in their backyard with justified confidence. Should they prevail then what an inspiration they will be for the next generation of Irish rugby players who take on England — population 53m — in the U20 World Cup final in Salford tomorrow evening. That this date was achieved by dismissing the All Blacks puts this adventure in an almost unique category.
These achievements, and the volunteerism that helped germinate them, are a powerful argument for investment in sport. It can shape a society’s view of itself and its ambitions and, just as an aside, be an excuse for the very best parties.