Archives for posts with tag: sport

Barring a major incident, Chris Froome is now safely on course for a second Tour de France win this weekend. Apart from his extraordinary performance on the first day of the Pyrenees, he has played an intelligent long-game, keeping a close eye on his greatest rivals while handing the daily glory to an array of less threatening competitors. The only chink in his armour came yesterday, when Nairo Quintana finally escaped his clutches on the last mountain climb, chopping 30 seconds off his 3 minute winning margin.

If only he could confine his challenges to the fearsome courses and competitors. Froome has been subjected to quite intense media speculation and rumour over the past few days. He has been spat at, had urine thrown at him and is regularly the subject of obscene gestures from spectators on the roadside. Throughout the tour, and particularly since his Stage 10 win, he has had to defend himself against those who believe he is winning, not by effort alone, but with the help of performance enhancing drugs such as EPO.

I am of the camp that believes that Froome is innocent of these charges. Without a doubt, cycling has been tainted enormously by the scandals of the past 17 years. It is therefore reasonable to ask if something untoward is happening when a rider puts in a huge performance nowadays. However I think that on the whole, the sport is much cleaner than it used to be, particularly for the top General Classification contenders.

The pressure to clean up the sport has never been stronger. The sport needs money and nothing scares off sponsors more quickly than allegations of drug taking. Sky, a company in an industry where perception is everything, would have a hard time explaining how much they knew, or were aware of, should a major drug scandal erupt within their team. Furthermore, given Team Sky’s publicly stated views on doping, they would be exposed as dreadful hypocrites should the reality belie their words.

Official testing has improved greatly in the last few years. The standards are more stringent, the testing processes more robust and unannounced tests are common in order to catch the cheats. There are also serious repercussions for competitors who miss a drugs test. Not perfect perhaps, but at least they place a determined cheat under greater pressure not to be caught napping.

More importantly, there are the many other ways the story could get out. A GC competitor has more than just officials to worry about. The cycling press are a hardy lot, and as the Lance Armstrong story demonstrated, unlikely to be fazed even when extreme intimidation is applied. If they hear a sniff of a scandal, they won’t easily be diverted from uncovering the truth. So far, they have remained relatively quiet on the subject of Froome. If anything, it’s a sign of health.

Cyclists also need to be on the guard for other cyclists, both competitors and team mates. Although cycling is a team sport, it is also fiercely individualistic and competitive. Game theory applies. While there are alliances, there are plenty of incentives and opportunities for defections. Cyclists change teams all the time. Enmities between competitors are poorly concealed and even within teams, riders can’t fully trust other cyclists. The incident where Rafal Majka’s communications “stopped working” at a crucial point in Stage 17, thus depriving Alberto Contador of much needed support, doesn’t lend itself to impeccable trust between team mates.

Within this atmosphere of regulation, suspicion and media scrutiny, I also wonder how some of the top players might view their legacy. Do they want their record to stand among the greats of cycling, or their names to be uttered in the same sentences as Armstrong and Virenque, particularly when the possibility of being caught out as a top-tier rider is enormously high? Surely the risks are now too great?

It’s possible I am wrong, and in that case I will gladly accept, once again, that I have put far too much faith in human nature. In the meantime, I remain on the sidelines, urging Froome on and wishing him the very best as he races down the Champs Elysées on Sunday.

I was about 13 years old when I came out to my dad. I’m sure he had known it for years already and had probably prepared for the worst. He must often have wondered what he did wrong to have a son like me. He had his dreams, but alas, those aspirations would never be fulfilled.

He had to face the truth. I was utterly useless at hurling.

Now, it wasn’t all bad, because I was equally rubbish at football, tennis or golf. In fact, almost all sports eluded me. For a man of sport, in a county where the ability to play hurling was more important than winning the Nobel Prize or landing on the Moon, his first son was an unfortunate freak of nature.

The thing was, my dad was exceptionally good at sport. In his youth, he played Minor hurling for Kilkenny (which made him a minor god in the locality). He loved nothing better than to go to a game, or watch a match on the TV. I remember going to many matches with him during my childhood – and being bored out of my wits – while he savoured every puck of the ball. There was no-one quite like my dad to read a game and explain how a team won or lost. For me, it was just a mass of confusion.

In my teens, he encouraged me to take up golf. Surprisingly, I loved it. I was never much good at it, of course, but I enjoyed the game and I enjoyed being with him. We both loved ideas, so in between shots, we debated endlessly with each other – science, politics, religion, current affairs: you name it. In a time when I was learning how to be an adult, these games brought us both together.

That’s one of my memories of dad. He passed away ten years ago this month, after a long illness that slowly sucked any quality of life away from him. I miss those games of golf. I miss going with him to hurling games listening him talk about the tactics, the heroes and the mistakes. Most of all, I miss him.

Now, with sons of my own – all of whom, incomprehensibly, are very talented sports players – I feel that an important part of him has been passed on. It’s a nice feeling.

Forget about your big rugby and soccer internationals. If you really want to see sport at its rawest and most intense, you can’t beat an under 5’s hurling match.

The ball gets hit out, and immediately 20 pairs of legs are chasing it around like a swarm of bees attacking a mischevious teddy bear. There’s always one though, idling in the centre of the pitch, completely oblivious to the game, imagining that he is a dinosaur: arms outstretched, a big T Rex lollop as he strides through his jungle. Another group in the corner are pretending they are pop stars, holding their hurleys in a way that would have made Rory Gallagher proud. It’s a goal, and suddenly a budding David Beckham travels the entire length of the pitch, completing his victory run with an authentic knee slide on the timber surface.

The game continues. Rarely does the ball come to rest, as it is harried by a score of hurleys, hitting at it from all directions. It’s a kind of social Brownian Motion, as the red team hit the ball towards the blue team and the blue team counter by scoring a masterfully planned own goal. One player rushes over to me with an important message: “Can I have an ice cream afterwards?”.

It’s getting ugly out there. A kid is knocked down, not by one opponent, but by ten of them simultaneously. Now the ball is stuck in a corner of the hall. Light itself is finding it difficult to escape from the huddle. I pity the coaches as they attempt to disentangle players from the melée.

It’s all over and my boys line up against the wall. Inexplicably, they are unbloodied and unbruised. They have only one thing on their minds: the ice creams they believed I had promised them earlier.

Make no mistake, Ireland’s future hurlers are a formidable lot.

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