LIKE every Irish kid growing up in the ’80s and inspired by the wax-on wax-off bully-slaying heroics of Mr Miyagi and Daniel-san, I practised karate for a year or so — just about enough time for the 35 quid my parents spent on the baggy white suit not to seem like a total waste of money.
I should have stuck with the old karate, it was good fun. Alas, one night there was an impromptu soccer game happening in the field across the lane so I decided I’d take the night off from doing katas and trying, unsuccessfully, to roundhouse kick one of my classmates in the head.
I never went back.
The instructor, Barry (I remember the name because he had it tattooed near his knuckles) probably got over it… I was no Daniel-san. (Come to think of it, he was no Mr Miyagi either — he used to end the class by making us all lie on the ground and he’d stride from stomach to stomach… “Harden ye up.”)
And it was a soccer match which finished my association with martial arts. Had it been a GAA game of any kind I fear he’d have paid me a visit, given me a close-up view of that tattoo.
Barry despised the Gah. One evening, he produced a batch of parish raffle tickets that every kind of club in the area were going to sell for some cause or other.
“Whatever we do,” he said. “We’re going to sell more than…” then spitting out the words, “…the GAA club.”
I admit to being taken aback. Even a 10-year-old could work out that a small enough bunch of kids could not out-hustle the GAA with their hundreds of members. And besides, most people at the karate played football and hurling anyway.
Barry no doubt knew this too, but he wasn’t deterred. “Just sell the tickets I give you,” he told us. It would have been a brave kid who didn’t buy the leftovers from their meagre pocket money. Barry was all about the business.
This happened around 25 years ago. At the time I thought Barry was just a nutter, but now I realise that although he played on the edge, he was the first example I had met of a person who was involved in a minority sport and has had it up to the gills with the GAA.
Today I meet these people all the time. “Why is there so much GAA in the paper?” they ask. Because that’s what people like. Sports sections of newspapers try to provide what readers want. We don’t set trends, much as we might like to believe otherwise.
Understandably, this leads to frustrations in other sports where the participants feel, justifiably I believe, that the volunteerism and athleticism inherent is at least the equal of the GAA.
One much-discussed recent example of this is when Jerry Kiernan had a lash at the GAA. Among other things, he said the players were not worthy of grants, were not committed to fitness to the extent of other sportsmen and the games were not deserving of the amount of coverage they receive.
In saying so, Kiernan has put himself against the wall and the firing squad have been doing their worst ever since.
Former Kerry midfielder Michael Quirke says he has “a cheek” to criticise their grants credentials and “an even greater arrogance” for saying GAA players don’t train hard enough.
Meath’s Seamus Kenny says Kiernan “insulted every GAA player”.
Former Westmeath manager and athletics coach Brendan Hackett says Kiernan’s views are a few years out of date.
Then there is the social media mob, who have called Kiernan every name under the moon. He is crazy, bitter, a ranter etc.
It is worth pointing out that, unlike a lot of his critics, Kiernan never once personalised his argument.
He expressed a general opinion, and surely somebody who finished ninth in the world in marathon running at the Los Angeles Olympics is entitled to offer his view on the fitness of GAA players.
Kiernan, whether the mob likes it or not, has clout on this subject because he has reached a level of excellence on the global stage. No matter how good a footballer or a hurler is, the truth is they are playing a game that is mainstream in just one small country.
At this moment, people are long-distance running in every continent, in every country. The numbers involved are in a different galaxy to our own national sports. Becoming a top-level runner is a far greater achievement than winning All-Ireland medals in the context of humanity.
In our insular sporting island, we sometimes forget that there’s big world out there. But I think, at a certain level, we are aware that this world is by and large gloriously indifferent to the exploits of Kilkenny and Dublin and Kerry.
So when somebody makes that point — quite strongly in Kiernan’s case — it jars and provokes a backlash.
Rather than rage against the opinion of a hugely successful athlete who has, naturally enough, become frustrated by the lack of attention given to his protégés, we should find out whether he has a point or not.
Are GAA players off the pace? One way to find out — instead of Pat Spillane read Michael Murphy; instead of 1980, read 2013. Superstars baby!
Seriously, I’m not messing around here. Opinions on which athletes are any use are entertaining, but I’d like some evidence and can think of no better way than to pit the cream of GAA, soccer, rugby, athletics, boxing, karate etc in direct competition.
I’m all for claims and counterclaims — they are the meat and two veg of the newspaper world — but eventually you need the spice of results to make it palatable.
If the GAA players fare well, then it is vindication for everyone who claims that the exponents of our native sports are truly world-class athletes who prepare in the most scientific and dedicated fashion.
And, if Kiernan’s athletes do turn out to be far fitter than the cream of Gaelic games, then everybody who has rubbished him or fired insults into the social media nether can form a big f**k-off queue to say sorry.