Michael Moynihan: Are Paul O’Donovan and co keeping a secret world under wraps?

The rowers know more about pain than the rest of us
Michael Moynihan: Are Paul O’Donovan and co keeping a secret world under wraps?

2020 Tokyo Olympic Games Thursday - Rowing, Sea Forest Waterway, Tokyo, Japan 29/7/2021

We’re all rowing experts now, of course. At least we think so.

Those among us with a pre-existing competence in the sport — knowledge which goes deeper than the reference in Father Ted to Sean Drea — are entitled to a preening sense of superiority, and they’re entitled to take their time in sharing that expertise with the rest of us.

Sometimes the expertise comes down to a single word with which to convey the experience: pain.

Some readers may recall the Gold Fever documentary made back in 2000, which followed rowers Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent et al as they prepared for the Olympics.

In one riveting scene the rowers undergo the brutal ergo test, in which they must simply row 2,000 metres on a rowing machine as fast as they can. A couple of them collapse afterwards; all look exhausted.

As one of the rowers says to camera beforehand: “I’m not looking forward to the pain.” 

 The pain is part of the experience. To quote a great book about rowing: “Rowing, particularly sculling, inflicts on the individual in every race a level of pain associated with few other sports. There was certainly pain in football during a head-on collision, pain in other sports on the occasion of a serious injury.

“That was more the threat of pain; in rowing there was the absolute guarantee of it every time.” 

That passage is from The Amateurs, David Halberstam’s a count of rowers trying to qualify to compete for America in the Olympics.

It’s not a surprise to read great insights in the book (take this on rowing as a TV commodity:

“Physically, rowing was remarkable resistant to the camera... the camera liked power exhibited more openly, and the power of the oarsmen [is] exhibited in far too controlled a setting. Besides, the camera liked to focus on individuals, and except for the single scull, crew was sport without faces.” 

 What’s also interesting is the backstory. Supposedly Halberstam, watching the 1984 Olympics, had been irritated by the constant focus on a winning athlete’s earning power in the commentary accompanying those games.

As a consequence he had sought out athletes who wished to become Olympians “because they wanted to, for no reward other than the feeling itself,” as he said.

He ended up with rowers. Of Tiff Wood, a distinct personality who leaps from the page, Halberstam said: “I was dealing with a complete adult, one generous and kind in spirit, and willing to talk with the utmost honesty about a world he had given his life to - almost a secret world where the rewards were nothing but the sport itself.” 

When I hear people discuss the drollery from the west Cork rowers this quotation always rolls around in my head, because it seems to articulate something about a sport like rowing - almost a secret world, where the reward is nothing but the sport itself.

Are those wry one-liners, those self-deprecating asides from Paul O’Donovan and co., a way of keeping the secret world under wraps even as the glare seeks to pick out every detail?

“In team sports the athletes were bonded by each other,” writes Halberstam.

“There was an immense peer pressure to keep going. One dared not miss a practice for fear of letting his teammates down. Every time an athlete thought of getting back into bed in the morning he knew he would have to face the anger of his closest friends.

“But the sculler had to find motivation entirely within himself. No one else cared.” 

Tipp will stick with what they have until...

Tipperary and Galway gone from the hurling championship within a week of each other - vanquished by the same team, Waterford.

It was interesting to see the flood of speculation begin not long after the final whistle in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Saturday about the rebuilding job on hand in Tipperary because of the expectation that several players will not figure in blue and gold again.

This echoed the sense earlier in the week that Galway were also facing into a period of refurbishment, particularly with the retirement of Joe Canning.

In a parallel universe it would be interesting to inspect the thought processes of all concerned at the sharp end — players, management, officials — to see just what impact those outside narratives have. Does it have any influence on the decision-making process, or is it just noise, a backing track that fades into the background while the main action takes place on centre stage?

At such times I’m inclined to rely on a great line Dr Con Murphy extracted from Christy Ring when Cork won their third All-Ireland in a row in 1978.

The team had been on the go for three solid years at that stage, so the question was a reasonable one: would they make changes for the next season?

“Con, we’ll stick with what we have until we find better,” was the response from the maestro.

Rassie showing us the future of post-match content

I was on holidays last week — very nice thanks, though I got sunburn on both insteps — so I am a little late to the table on the matter of Rassie Erasmus’s one-hour video on refereeing in the Lions-South Africa series.

(Correction: am told it was sixty-two minutes. An agreeable amount of injury time, I suppose).

I read that there are suggestions Erasmus may be sanctioned for bringing the game into disrepute, which seems a little excessive. This is the kind of action which he should be praised for — having brought the game out of disrepute, if you like.

The video is the kind of innovation every field game in the world could do with. Any time there’s even the mildest sense of refereeing error we should be treated to an hour of managerial venting.

With the right of reply afforded to the referee in question, of course.

All sports are missing a trick by not facilitating such events. A pal who’s a committed rugby fan admitted that he found some of the first test hard enough going to watch — but with this kind of entertainment on offer as match-adjacent content, who’s complaining?

Nice work, Rassie. Thanks for showing us the future.

A book for the beach

Seeing as I mentioned holidays earlier, I feel duty bound to acknowledge a complaint made by a reader some time ago.

“The worthy non-fiction is one thing, but what about a beach read for the hols? You know, something that would kill a wet day when the beach is out of the question, seeing as you hogged the heatwave for yourself?” 

That’s harsh, but if you’re packing the bag for your holiday may I suggest a classic - Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, which brightened up my own hols considerably - and a newcomer, Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby.

You may know Lonesome Dove from the TV series starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, not to mention Danny Glover as Deets (“Splendid behaviour”).

You may get to know Razorblade Tears from an onscreen adaptation soon enough - a brilliant thriller by a writer whose other books must now be investigated immediately.

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

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