Sport: selling its integrity to highest bidder


The Olympic spirit sullied by big business

Those who know me know too that sport is not my thing. It never has been. At school I had a tacit agreement with the sports teacher that he would turn a blind eye to my absence from the school gym if I helped organise the annual sports day.

That compact was breached only once when I was ‘volunteered’ by another teacher to participate in a five-a-side GAA tournament. Let’s just say my father was astonished when arrived home with a medal. He couldn’t quite comprehend how I had managed to end up on the winning team.

Fate played a part. The four other players went on to have distinguished careers with Down. I am still somewhat red-faced to admit that through the heats, and in the final, I never once touched the ball. But I deserved my medal for effort. I tried. My God I tried.

Needless to say, I couldn’t walk for a week. I don’t know whether or not the teacher (an Armagh man) was trying to scupper the chances of my team mates. He is now a parish priest, so I doubt there was any mal-intent.

In those far off days, there was still a sense that the purest sports were those untainted by commercialism – and the GAA was the purest of the pure. Amateurism was revered and, surprisingly perhaps, still is; alhough there is continuing pressure for the governing body to yield to professionalism.

In those days too, the Olympics, the pinnacle of sporting excellence, upheld the amateur code. The games celebrated the achievements of men and women who took part purely for the competition.

In the solemn Olympic oath, athletes committed themselves to take part “in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams”. It was a world where taking part was more important than winning (unless of course you came from one of the Soviet-bloc nations).

Television changed all that. The money proved just too tempting, and one by one sports succumbed.

Boxing remains an amateur Olympic sport, but its professional incarnation is dripping in cash and gets the bulk of attention. In golf you would be hard-pressed to name the leading amateurs, but even I (who does not know one side of a golf ball from the other) would easily be able to reel off a list of the professionals’ names.

Avery Brundage, who headed the Olympic movement from the fifties through to the 1970s, refused to contemplate any whiff of professionalism around the games. Speaking in 1955 he said: “ We can only rely on the support of those who believe in the principles of fair play and sportsmanship embodied in the amateur code in our efforts to prevent the games from being used by individuals, organisations or nations for ulterior motives.”

Ulterior motives indeed.

Sport today is reaping the consequences of its decision to embrace big business, and like a male preying mantis, it is now being consumed by its mate. It is a sad and sorry sight.

This week’s revelation of corruption in world tennis might have been shocking had it not been preceded by scandals in athletics (last week we had the latest instalment), football (Fifa is now the dirtiest of four-letter words), and cycling – to name but three. Where there’s brass there’s muck.

Sporting scandals are not new. We are dealing with human beings here, and humans are frail.

But there is something truly rotten about the scale of institutional connivance in corruption: dirty deals, bribery, and drug misuse. It’s not just individuals going astray, global organisations are in the gutter.

Those charged with maintaining the integrity of their sports, and with protecting the legacy of sporting heroes, have not just been asleep on the job. They have been active participants in the destruction of confidence in their sports and the achievements of their athletes.

Money has reduced sport to the level of mere entertainment. But at least in the movies we know the stars are pretending. Sporting excellence is supposed to be about the real thing, about endurance, about humankind transcending its limitations.

There are countless arguments about the benefits professionalism has brought to sport: it has rewarded athletes, it has helped sports to grow and to reach new audiences. But with it, we have lost something special; and we have allowed a virus to enter the sporting arena. It is a virus that may be possible to contain, but now it is there we will never be rid of it. The GAA should take note.

  • A version of this column appeared in The Irish News on January 22 2016.

Jeremy Corbyn and the decline and fall of British Labour


Jeremy Corbyn: accidental leader of the Labour Party

So what is to be made of the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn: accidental leader of the British Labour Party, champion of unpopular causes; and a meek-mannered vegetarian surrounded by carnivores?

There is no doubting the scale of Corbyn’s mandate. It’s huge. As his minions keep repeating, no other party leader has been elected with such a groundswell of support.

In the main, electoral systems are designed to ensure moderates (within an acceptable range) get in.

This has worked effectively enough for Labour in the past. The middle ground – represented by Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock, Blair, Brown – has held sway. The donkey-jacketed left wing intellectual Michael Foot was the exception that proved the rule.

But the fratricidal Ed Miliband changed the rules ‘in the interests of party democracy’. Under his somewhat bonkers electoral system anyone with three quid spare could sign up as a Labour supporter and get a vote, and many on the disenfranchised left did just that.

That in itself would not have been enough to see Corbyn through. MPs are the gatekeepers to getting on the candidates’ list and, as we have seen in recent months, Corbyn does not have a natural majority there.

He effectively blagged his way onto the leadership ballot with the borrowed votes of some idealistic MPs (such as Margaret Beckett) who thought the left should have a voice in the leadership debates, but never imagined people might vote for Corbyn.

This, of course, is history. But understanding the nature of Corbyn’s ascent is critical to understanding the intricate power politics currently being played out in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Corbyn is perplexing because he does not play by the rules. In a parliamentary system that prizes loyalty above principle, he is a serial rebel. Indeed, it is reckoned he has voted against Labour more times than current Tory Premier David Cameron.

He abhors the theatrical cat and mouse game of Prime Minister’s Question Time, and raises issues on behalf of Joe and Jo Public. And he is suspicious of ritual and kow-towing (as well you might be if you, like him had attended a private school and endured its hierarchical ravages).

All this, of course, is part of the reason why he was successful in the leadership ballot. People don’t like career politicians (and who can blame them). Today we respond positively to ‘authenticity’, and Corbyn has managed to transcend his privileged upbringing. He is not afraid to call a shovel a spade.

On the face of it, he seems to be an awfully nice bloke. Even his political foes agree.

And there are those of us who believe that someone who has attracted the enmity of The Sun, The Daily Mail and Tony Blair cannot be all bad.

Among a certain class of people – let’s call them the contrarians – Corbyn is a good thing for politics, for parliament and for the democratic cause. As the course of Irish history has shown, great injustices are done when people refuse to defy the accepted wisdom. Corbyn’s record on issues of peace and justice is not what some would paint it.

But politics is not just about principle, it is also about power. Without power, you can achieve nothing – as the Liberal Democrats and Labour are learning to their cost.

Many in the parliamentary Labour Party have memories fresh enough to know what power tasted like, and they miss it. Corbyn has never had it, and wants it only on his terms. And there lies the fault line in Her Majesty’s so called Opposition.

It rift is not just between MPs and their leader, but between the parliamentary party and the party in the country – the hundreds of thousands who voted Corbyn as their leader, and who expect him to deliver a new style of politics: old Labour politics, stripped of the centrist trappings added by Blair and Brown.

Corbyn’s new year reshuffle was designed to tilt the balance in the direction of the party in the country. But it backfired. Hillary Benn – the primary target – proved to be untouchable. The leader in waiting, an effective parliamentarian with all the street cred of a Benn, remains Foreign Secretary.

And in resorting to the traditional black arts of spin and counter-spin, Corbyn’s aides cemented the notion that the reshuffle was a botched narrow-minded political putsch rather than a confident statement of intent by a strong leader.

Of course every mistake he makes is magnified by a hostile press. They are out to get him. But at the moment, Corbyn and his aides seem to content to write the Tory Press’s story for them, and the result of their ineptitude will be to put off even further the day when Labour regains a hold on power.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on January 8 2016

Is Ireland still fighting its own 100 years war?


Over the top: the Battle of the Somme 1916

They say history never repeats itself, but historians often do. Much the same can be said for journalists. We love a big story. Breaking news is still the stuff of newspapers, it sets pulses racing and fingers dancing across keyboards.

But not every day is a big news day, and needs must. In the absence of anything else we fall back on old news, repackaged. The anniversary is a brilliant excuse to fill the airwaves and to decorate acres of newsprint.

It will hardly have escaped your notice that, had he lived, Frank Sinatra would have been 100 this month – inconveniently he died in 1998, but the marketers never let that get in in the way of a retrospective. The 80th anniversary of Elvis’s birth was marked with a ‘new’ release where he was backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra karaoke style.

This past year we were invited to remember the battle of Waterloo, VE Day and the anniversary of Churchill’s death.Those of a literary disposition will know that the Irish ambassador to the Court of St James has tweeted a quote from Yeats every day this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and  why not.

This coming year there are a couple of significant ones: the 20th anniversary of the Docklands bombing at Canary Wharf and the 25th of the release of the Birmingham Six among them. But the year will be overshadowed by two events that had a profound effect on history. In a strange way they are intertwined.

The Easter Rising exploited that familiar Irish republican political observation: England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. With all its resources focused on the battle against Germany in France, England was certainly in difficulty in 1916.

The justness of the First World War is less clear-cut than the second, but the Kaiser was not a particularly pleasant man, nor was he a champion of the principles of the civil liberties we now expect of an enlightened modern leader. Right might well have been on England’s side, but we must remember history is suspect, it is written by the victors. (Irish history is the exception to that rule, ours is a victims’ narrative.)

For the mass of Irish people, while there may have been a general desire for independence, there was no imperative to strike a blow for freedom in 1916. The leaders of the Rising had no mandate (they earned it retrospectively).

Needless to say, there is competition for the position of ‘rightful heir’ to the legacy of 1916, and there is a risk that the commemorations of the rising will reopen some of the wounds in Irish society that appeared in its aftermath.

The greater risk is that they will exacerbate the rift in political cultures in the north of the island – a rift which shows little sign of healing it is sad to say. And here we come to the second great anniversary of the year.

Countless Irishmen lost their lives on the bloodied fields on the banks of the Somme in 1916. Their blood sacrifice is as entrenched in loyalist history and mythology, as that of the 1916 leaders in nationalism’s. The loss of so many in the Ulster brigades has fuelled the sense of betrayal at the actions in the GPO and done much to sustain the bitterness that underscores so much of our politics.

Yet many nationalists lost their lives in the same battle – Redmondites trusting their willingness to fight for the crown would secure home role.

Is it too much to ask that this year be seen as an opportunity to reflect on past events rather than glory in them; to recognise that events are usually more complex than we remember them; and to come to a realisation that history belongs in the past and not in the present?


In finishing, I would like to add my own tribute to the journalist Liam Clarke who died this week. I met Liam when I was a rookie working at the News Letter and the Sunday News in the 1980s. To me then he seemed like a seasoned hack but he cannot have been much older than me. He was intelligent and never afraid to challenge orthodoxies. In a political system where there is no real opposition, journalists like him are a critical part of the body politic and he will be missed.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on December 31 2015