Summer is grinding towards its inevitable autumnal end and still nobody has thought to stage a World Cup, European Championships or Olympics. For shame. We should set up a tribunal, or at least an Oireachtas committee, to investigate. You can have your Wimbledons, Irish Opens and endless series of Lions’ friendly matches, but nothing beats the Big Three. A summer without one is like a summer without a Seanad debate on aggressive seagulls. It leaves us feeling cheated and empty inside.
Anyone suffering from withdrawal symptoms should spare a thought for Shane Ross. The Sports Minister was recently overcome with such panic that he blurted a plea for Ireland to host the Olympics. Ross’s giddy suggestion that Ireland launch an audacious coup to bring the world’s oldest games – the Olympics, that is, not political judicial appointments – to Ireland sank faster than a Spanish footballer in the penalty box. Rather than being given a gold medal for initiative, the poor Minister was slapped with the wooden spoon.
Cynical pundits were not giving Ross the credit he deserves. After all, we have enough TDs who want to bring the Greek economy to Ireland, so it’s a welcome change to have one determined to import their games. If anyone can do it, it is surely Ross, for whom the Olympics is a natural fit. The original Games were established during a time of widespread societal upheaval and have since soared to the status of global phenomenon, a fitting metaphor for his political career. Indeed, Heracles, the mythological founder of the Games, was regarded as a demi-God among his people for instilling security in Ancient Greece, which is precisely how Ross is viewed in Stepaside.
Ross’s Olympic kite was sunk by spoilsports who pointed out Ireland’s infrastructure deficit. These were the protestations of people trying to hold this country back from greatness – the same sort of people who wanted building regulations and a sustainable tax base. Ireland could easily host the Olympic Games, so long as our official bid was allowed to suggest minor alterations to each sport to match the world class infrastructure we have to offer.
For example, instead of taking place on its traditional track, the hurdles could be hosted by forcing athletes to try to escape a political protest in Jobstown. Gymnastics could be rebranded as ‘mental gymnastics’ as competitors stand perfectly still while trying to figure out what the hell is going on in An Garda Síochana. The cycling event will be one of the most exciting as elite cyclists from around the world attempt to make it from College Green to Parnell Square without being killed. They can even stop off at the boardwalk to refuel on illegal substances.
Other events are perfectly suited to Ireland. Synchronised swimming is already based on the concept of ‘new politics’, with competitors desperately trying to stay afloat while mimicking each other’s every movement. How graceful Leo and Micheal will look pirouetting in the shallow end as Trotskyist judges hold aloft zero signs. Ireland would also have a good shot at landing a medal in the modern pentathlon, albeit with some adjustments: instead of the traditional mix of five sports, athletes will have to introduce a water charge, then partially implement it, before establishing a committee, dismantling the charge and in the final act disburse wads of fifties to bemused customers.
On second thoughts, maybe this isn’t going to work. Perhaps yet another half-baked suggestion to bring a major sporting event to Ireland is simply illustrative of how Ireland expects international sporting success without wanting to do any of the hard work needed to earn it. That is, after all, our real national game. Every four years individual athletes who have received minimal public funding and, in most cases, no public support compete for medals. When they are successful we celebrate as though it was a collective effort for which we all deserve credit. So what if boxing stadia sit empty year-round and one of our greatest ever athletes is forced to change in public toilets because there are no female facilities? A little bit of those golds belong to us all, no?
Ireland’s Olympic bid would be even less successful than our ill-fated attempt to lure the 2008 European Championships to these shores. That bid was rejected after UEFA officials travelled to Ireland to be shown the three stadia where matches would be held: one which wasn’t built, one which was falling down and another from which football was still banned. It was the first official UEFA bid to be rejected using the LOL emoji.
When it comes to sporting expectations versus our willingness to actually invest in earning those rewards, no sport in Ireland can compete with football. Shortly after Minister Ross’s Olympic gaffe, Dundalk F.C. was narrowly defeated by Rosenborg of Norway in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. It was a disappointment for Dundalk, although given the vastly differing resources of the two clubs, not exactly a huge shock. Despite this, one newspaper claimed the result illustrated the “terminal decline of [the] destitute League of Ireland”.
Over the last 25 years, Irish people have invested tens of millions of euro annually into football. The only problem is that it has been into English football. Our investment in the domestic game – both financial and cultural – is minimal yet we remain convinced that overcoming countries with established leagues and gold-plated youth academies should not be beyond our capabilities.
When League of Ireland clubs stumble against European opposition with vastly superior resources, defeat is deemed illustrative of a deep genetic failure and not simple economics. Defeat for the national team to countries with far more advanced infrastructure and embedded football culture is met by collective eye-rolling.
Our inability to achieve substantial success on the football pitch has become a source of national shame. The sport is judged harshly against Gaelic games, where the absence of any international opposition protects the players from comparative scrutiny, and rugby, a sport which a handful of nations in the northern hemisphere play.
Against such benchmarks, football is regarded like the drunk uncle at a family wedding: we know he’s good for a laugh every once and a while but generally we cover our eyes and hope the neighbours aren’t looking. Despite all this, an objective analysis suggests we are actually a lot better at football than we like to think. Football is a sport played by almost every nation on earth. Ireland is the 124th most populous country in the world yet stands 29th in the FIFA world rankings. By any definition, that’s punching above your weight. We’re not going to achieve the sort of consistent international success we demand, but we’re probably over-achieving based on what we actually deserve.
Ireland often expects sporting success despite having done little or nothing to achieve it. Like any good captain, Minister Ross is simply leading from the front.