Clodagh Finn: Time to recognise sport’s power to unify, connect, and transform

Regardless of what code you follow or which side you favour, sport can evoke the very best of our aspirations
Clodagh Finn: Time to recognise sport’s power to unify, connect, and transform

Serena Williams in action during her first-round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich before she had to pull out of Wimbledon due to injury. Picture: Adam Davy/PA

You won’t catch me ribbing England football fans for hankering after glory, World Cup 1966-style, as they ride the wave of excitement ahead of tonight’s Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark.

And, as any Irish armchair tennis fan knows only too well, our tournament victories are not only history, but ancient history. You have to rifle through more than 100 years of the Wimbledon annals to uncover a triumph for Team Ireland. But, oh what a glorious one. In 1890, the Irish dominated the famous championship, winning the men’s singles, women’s singles, and the men’s doubles titles.

Imagine the week we’d have now if Lena Rice (Tipperary), Willoughby Hamilton (Kildare), and doubles partners Joshua Pim (Wicklow) and Frank Stoker (Dublin) were shaping up to make it into the final stages of Wimbledon, as they were more than 130 years ago.

The streets would be festooned with flags and bunting, and that same ripple of euphoria would be pulsing through our veins as long-suffering England fans are feeling now. A part of you — no matter what your team or sport — has to stand with them, if only to admire how sport can connect, unify, and buoy up an entire nation.

Indeed, it also has the power to do much more, a point made so eloquently by England manager Gareth Southgate in his ‘Dear England’ open letter penned last month.

In it, he said he and his players had a responsibility to use their voices to speak out on equality, inclusivity, and racial injustice, and to help put debates on the table, raise awareness, and educate. He told online trolls and racists they were on the losing side: 

It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society.   

Let’s hope he is right.

Of course, his main job is to win tonight’s match, but it was how he described what happens on the pitch that resonated so deeply with this armchair fan.

“When England play,” he said, “it’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That last beyond the summer. That last forever.”

Dare to dream

That paragraph gave me goosebumps as it gets to the essence of fandom — even armchair fandom, in my case. It explains, for instance, how the whole world can shrink to a darkened TV room on a single afternoon when Roger Federer is serving for the match. He still moves with the grace of a dancer on his post-surgery knees and very old legs (in tennis terms, anyway) to put away a shot with the kind of ease that leaves you watching with “novelty-shop eyeballs”, as novelist and tennis player David Foster Wallace once put it.

Foster Wallace wrote an essay on the Swiss player entitled ‘Both Flesh and Not’, which describes what you feel when you watch a man who appears to be endowed with the kind of superhuman genius that makes elite sport so utterly beguiling.

Yet, in recent years, we have seen Federer lose, too. And we have seen other towering greats falter, such as Serena Williams who retired with an injury in the first round of Wimbledon last week. 

The 39-year-old has 23 grand slam titles, just one behind the former world number one, retired Australian player Margaret Court.

Can she come back after so much physical wear and tear to equal Court’s record? The champion herself has no doubts. Her website tells us: 

Serena dreams big and lives her life even bigger. She’s not even close to done.

The same indomitable human spirit whipped up adulation in the crowd when Andy Murray, who truly is “both flesh and not”, came back with his metal hip to win two hard-fought matches before going out in the third round. His performance was both inspiring and sobering; inspiring to witness an unquenchable desire to fight on, yet sobering to see that the spirit was willing even if the flesh was not.

Though, there is a special magic in observing the natural decline of a great athlete and watching them play on regardless. That commands the kind of respect that, as we have seen, can bring people together in a way that breaks down barriers.

Speaking of sport’s singular connecting power, doubles partners Rohan Bopanna, from India, and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, from Pakistan — a one-time symbol of friendship between rival nations — reunited after seven years to take part in the Mexican Tennis Open in March.

They lost in the first round, but the match recalled how, over many years, fans from both countries flocked to see them play. It brought back memories of their ‘Stop War, Start Tennis’ campaign. Qureshi once commented that it was impossible to tell which fans were Pakistani and which were Indian when they were together in a stadium.

“That’s the beauty about sports,” he said.

Breaking down barriers

Given the vast potential of sport to bring people together, it is surprising that we have not made more of it.

Although that is not quite true when you consider the success of a new cross-community GAA club set up in predominantly Protestant East Belfast. It began with a tweet during the first lockdown asking if anyone was interested in a new GAA club for all ages, genders, and backgrounds.

Within two weeks, four codes were set up, and now there are 400 playing members. It started a children’s section this year and, despite Covid-19, 120 children, from under-5s to under-9s, are playing football, hurling, and camogie.

“It’s very special to see friendships blossoming between people at any age who would have traditionally never had the opportunity to meet before,” the club’s PRO told me, “but it’s especially heartening to see young primary kids learn a new sport together and become friends when they would never have previously had this opportunity to even play together before.”

This has led to playdates between children from different backgrounds outside of the club events. That is especially significant when you consider that just 7% of all pupils in the North go to integrated schools.

The adults' teams train on shared pitches, and the club has built strong relationships with teams in other sports, including Bredagh GAC, Orangefield FC, and Instonians Rugby, while Holywood Cricket Club hosted some of their coaches at an open day last week.

Sport really has the power to transform, if only we would let it.

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