Be a participant in life, not a spectator

This is as good a day as any to throw in the ball and announce, with a suitable fanfare of mixed metaphors of course, that the much-anticipated summer of sport has begun.

The tsunami of competition will highlight some of humanity’s best qualities. Unfortunately, we’d be foolish not to anticipate a downside too but, and this is why the weeks ahead are so anticipated, the experiences will be largely positive and often inspiring.

Some performances will be moving. No one who saw pixie-like Nadia Comaneci scoring a perfect 10 on her way to winning three gold medals in Montreal in 1976 can have forgotten how beautiful, how almost ethereal, her decade-defining performances were.

Katie Taylor’s win in China yesterday means that she’s just a few rounds away from realising her ambition — to win an Olympic medal in London. And if Katie’s campaign epitomises hard work matched with talent then Andrej Jezierski’s qualification to represent us all in the C1 200m canoe sprint epitomises the new Ireland. A Pole, Jezierski and his family have settled in Cork. He secured an Irish passport and declared for Ireland. A new life in a new country, a new opportunity and a new face in a green jersey. What a foil to those who suggest they lack opportunity.

Like most beginnings the summer of sport begins with an ending and this afternoon’s Heineken Cup final in London marks the end of the European rugby season. Anyone who suggested even five years ago that two Irish teams — Leinster’s highly skilled exuberance against Ulster’s hard-nosed self-belief — would claw their way to the top of Europe’s greasy pole would have been derided in the way we Irish can find so very motivating. Both teams have been inspiring far beyond the world of sport.

Leinster show what can be achieved when determination, talent and intelligence are brought together. Ulster’s rugby team has played a huge role in bridge building in the North and vindicated the IRFU’s decision to defy the predictable, tribal criticism and persist with the uninspiring Ireland’s Call anthem. As the South Africans in the Ulster colours will confirm sport can unite divided communities. After all they saw the master in this sphere — Nelson Mandela — work his peace-making magic through the Springboks.

Euro 2012 is just a matter of weeks away and already the signs are that the magic of the Charlton years, off pitch at least, might be recaptured. On the domestic front the business end of the GAA year gets under way as championship campaigns begin in earnest. There’s the Volvo Ocean race in Galway and the rugby tour to New Zealand too.

Anyone disinterested in sport may have to close the curtains over the next while but maybe the rest of us should take a moment to consider an obvious dichotomy — if we can become so very immersed in sport why do we not encourage more of our children to participate?

The advantages are as plain as the determination in Katie Taylor’s eye but maybe they need to be restated. Participating in sport, or any physical activity, will make for healthier children and help them escape the spreading curse of obesity.

It will make them more socially secure and teach them what it is to be part of a team rather than being the self-obsessed lump like too many of today’s children. It will help in physical and emotional development and, most of all, it can be hugely enjoyable and rewarding.

Ireland does not have a good record on promoting sports, or even physical activity, in schools. Though some are better than others at this maybe it is time to change that lazy attitude. After all it would be the foundation of a healthy, preventative lifestyle and over a lifetime offer huge physical benefits. It’s probably time the Department of Education was more assertive in this area as the benefits certainly outweigh the costs. Parents might do more too to help children become involved outside school as we are all familiar with the short-handed club men and women trying to work miracles with little enough support.

There is also the possibility of changing lives for the better through sport. For every Rory McIlroy there must be hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries running to seed before their time, avidly following sport from a deep couch, spectating but not participating. Too often the spectating-but-not-participating principle applies to their lives as well and this lack of ambition limits choice in a crushing, life-defining way.

Over the next while we will see almost daily confirmation of the great Gary Player truism ... the harder I practise, the luckier I get. And it is so true in life as well. Be a participant, not a spectator.


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