Gold Standard

06 September 2008 – by Dave O’Connor

There’s an ancient yearn from the realms of mindfulness and destiny; it goes that some men settle for what they’ve become accustomed to whilst others aim higher and chase their dream.

For so long our nation has played the roll of beautiful losers, second best in competition but winners in every other sense of the word. Here we are, team Ireland and we’re always gracious in defeat.

Step forward young Patrick Barnes, Belfast. Mildly gracious, but much rather rational, dejected and downright hurt in the immediate aftermath of competitive bereavement. An after-bout rant amounting to a new age towards succeeding, it’s now about more than just blow up hammers and novelty t-shirts, it’s about winning.

The impressive Shiming Zou smashed Barnes (and his country’s) Olympic dream and albeit the Chinese man standing as a deserving victor, our man had every right to feel aggrieved after the scorecards were confirmed.

“I don’t want it,” yelled the Ulsterman live on RTE after his light flyweight semi-final. “Bronze is for losers, they can keep it.”

Maybe the sight of Marty Morrissey and his microphone came too soon after four rounds of high-stakes boxing, but straight to the point and no holding back, Barnes wanted gold. And why not?

This particular salad has fine ingredient for argument. In many sports, silver is nothing, never mind bronze. But maybe, just maybe in the Olympics any medal no matter what race or creed is deemed special. So in summary, a bronze is good, silver is nice, but gold is so much better.

Of course, his out of ring antics caused panic and hysteria amongst the traditionalists of bandwagon punditry: “He’s a disgrace to the country”, “He should be ashamed of himself”, “Won’t someone please think of the children!”

But as an honorary chairman of the finish-last-finish-nowhere fan club, let me join the queue to pat Paddy Barnes firmly on the back. You’ve set the standard son.

Following on from Friday’s triple whammy, in which Darren Sutherland also had to settle for bronze, the handsome Kenny Egan held the weight of Ireland on his broad shoulders. One chance.

Arising on Sunday morning, I had a tremendous craving for a gold medal for breakfast and what better man to start cooking than the Neilstown native. He fought, he won and received a silver medal for his efforts. Bias or not, what does a boxer have to do to land a score? This generation’s moment of glory was stolen by somebody’s ineptitude.

Of course Zhang Xiaoping is a beautiful boxer and a class act. He’s an Olympic competitor, that’s proof enough that he can lace his own gloves with intent, but Kenneth Egan is a champion, a winner and perhaps he can do without a gold medal in showing that. However, the sight of him kissing Xiaoping’s gold like a father who’ll never see his child again told a story in which Egan knew the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Beijing 2008 was a typically Irish encounter for our representatives; the odd injury, countless failings and of course the status-quo of doping scandals. Thanks to our boxing brethren, there was a relative taste of what things could be like if Ireland took itself a little more seriously. How amazing, yet somewhat unsurprising it was to read that our hammer-throw professional Eileen O’Keefe was unable to practice in our national athletics stadium ahead of the games as Sporting Fingal (a semi-pro eircom league football club formed less than a year ago) use the grounds as their home pitch.

Hurdler Derval O’Rourke, an asthmatic, stated she struggled to breath properly throughout her time on the host continent. Considering she qualified quite some time ago, maybe a little research may have gone along way and somebody, anybody would have realised that a ventolin inhaler stuffed down the shorts of the loveable Cork athlete may not suffice.

Of course we then had that delightful mishap with Melanie Nocher’s goggles in the women’s 200m freestyle heat. It may be best to leave that one under water.

It’s important to emphasise that this is far a calling from the moral high ground of Irish boxing, but instead an effort to pinpoint the areas of neglect and amateurism engulfed in the conundrum of Irish sport. Look beyond the Olympic hills and things aren’t too rosy throughout. Whilst the country’s football “fans” rely on the English Premiership for entertainment, Irish clubs are constantly on the verge of collapse. In Padraig Harrington, Eire has one the finest sports stars in the world at its disposal and until recently (about three weeks ago in fact) our country held him at length in utter unkemptness.

We’re vultures, we’re greedy, we’re nothing but beautiful losers, in it for the craic but best buddies to everyone when it’s going well. Let our code take a bow though, because the pianists of the sweet science; Nevin, Joyce, Sutherland, Egan and of course Barnes have drawn a line, now it’s time for Ireland to cross it. In (eventually) accepting his bronze medal, Barnes wiped himself down, raised his brow and stated the obvious: “[Getting] the bronze is the proudest moment of my life, but hopefully next time will be a prouder moment when I get the gold in 2012”.

Doesn’t sound like he’s becoming accustomed to third place does it? Win at all costs.

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