When fatgate broke — Jerry Kiernan’s personal operation transformation for upholstered Gaelic football players — I could not be drawn into the barney.
Simple reason; any quarrel between football and athletics was put to bed as long ago as 1980, when Bernard Brogan followed Pat Spillane’s lead to win the Irish leg of Superstars — the only known means, in the history of the state, of fairly settling these important matters.
Sure, Declan Burns and Gerry Loftus went on to make impressive cases for the natural supremacy of canoeists and trampolinists, even if having access to a trampoline in Ireland in 1982 would surely have bounced you into, at worst, the sport’s top 10.
But it was a no-show from the runners until 1984, when Brendan Curtin saved a little face. It should be remembered too that Brendan was a decathlete, almost unfairly suited to Superstars’ multi-tasking environment. In any case, the shine had rubbed off the whole thing by then, with no world title — or trip to the Bahamas — up for grabs any more.
Nor can it be easily overlooked that Kiernan himself was operating at the peak of his powers when Superstars held the nation — and a good portion of the world — in thrall.
The time for sowing it into the Gah lads was 30 years ago, Jer.
The clarity brought about by this reverie made it impossible not to mark an important milestone — this week clocks up the 40th anniversary of the very first Superstars competition broadcast in America. The ruby jubilee of a little gem.
That first outing drew a stellar cast to Florida; Olympic pole vault gold medallist Bob Seagren, tennis standard-bearer Rod Laver, the golden arm of the NFL Johnny Unitas. And, capping a heavyweight line-up was the late powerhouse of the ring Joe Frazier — not long after losing his world title to George Foreman. The pool became the next opponent to best him, as Joe almost drowned during his 50m swimming heat because he hadn’t taken the precaution of learning to swim.
Seagren landed his own blow for track and field by taking the title and within months Britain began its quest for a Superstar, with RTÉ also reacting sharply to have a first series ready as soon as 1979.
It was all magnificent. An important pillar in the formative years of 30 and 40-something sports lovers everywhere.
For many, the iconic moment in its history came during the cycling contest at the British final of ’76, when Liverpool’s Kevin Keegan — eyes fixed grimly on the first corner as though Fergie was belittling Stuart Pearce up ahead — spilled dramatically off his bike and grafted much of the skin from his right arm to the asphalt track.
But it was what came next that can never be forgotten. As reporter Ron Pickering fussed trackside and concluded that Keegan’s race was surely run, Kev came up with the 15 words that epitomised the competitive spirit of a once-great club.
“I might do the steeplechase — if it means the difference between coming third and fourth.”
As Brendan Rodgers trawls tirelessly for words of inspiration, he would do well to etch these above the This Is Anfield sign, or at least on his motivational envelopes. He can change the wording to fifth and sixth, if he likes.
As it turned out, Kevin not only stormed the steeplechase, he was allowed back into the cycling too, where he finished second en route to overall glory.
Different, special times.
Interestingly, Eamonn Coghlan competed in the British heats in 1977, finishing fifth behind the likes of strongman Geoff Capes. But it wasn’t until our own version of the competition found a home in Belfield that the inspirational effects truly spilled out onto our lawns and yards.
Obstacle courses were constructed from the deckchairs acquired for the Pope’s visit, discarded paint cans were loaded with rocks and strapped to broom handles to give budding weightlifters a stage.
There was even the opportunity for a unique meld of backyard disciplines when sadly departed showjumper Paul Darragh competed in a European event in 1979 — his legion of fans able to convert the obstacle course in the garden to an Aga Khan trophy track simply by slapping themselves on the backside as they cleared it.
Names made, never forgotten. The Brians — Jacks, Hooper and Budd. The latter was the greatest Superstar. Another good man gone.
And so many lessons learned. Our first exposure to international chicanery came when South African racing driver Jody Sheckter tried to match the mighty Declan Burns at squat thrusts by oiling his shoes for a controversial slip and slide technique. As if our regard for petrol heads hadn’t sunk low enough when René Arnoux failed entirely to clamber up the 12-foot wall. In sharp contrast to Ed Moses, who needed no rope.
It allowed us a glimpse of impossible glamour; Jimmy Magee at Xanadu Beach on Grand Bahama with Spillane.
“They tell us here that if you stay out for more than 10 minutes in the sun, you can get seriously burned,” marvelled Jimmy, before noting temperatures that day might go as high as 77 degrees.
All the shot needed was a local in an overcoat.
They have often tried to revive it; first with retired greats, just this Christmas with British Olympians. But it was never the same.
Some say money has ruined sport, but a lot worse is the lack of it. How could you coax the great pros into genuine competition without a worthwhile purse? And how could you afford the insurance? In 1973, Smokin’ Joe got $3,600 for turning up and a plot of land worth $8,500. Seagren made $39,700. In the Bahamas, there was $40,000 up for grabs, which would have bought you nearly any house in this country. The records show Pat came home with $2,100, still a good bit more than Jerry and the GPA are squabbling over now.
Which got me thinking again; there really is only one way to settle where the cash goes. Let’s get it on.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved