Friday, 27 July 2012

Olympic Cycles

There are three Olympic stories told in Whose Side Are You On? The first is the most famous - the story of Mary Peters who left a bleak, bomb-blasted Belfast in 1972 to travel to Munich to compete in the Pentathlon. After two days of competition she returned to Northern Ireland with a gold medal hanging around her neck (and a death threat hanging over her head). Hers is the great Northern Irish Olympic story. The story of an athlete who pushed herself and pushed herself and got her rewards. I always think her success is underrated in the British Olympic story, given the paucity of facilities she had to train on in Belfast at the time and the violence that marked the city at that time (no mention, for example, in this morning's Radio Four Olympic montage).

Then there's Wayne McCullough's story. McCullough is one of Northern Ireland's best ever boxers, born and raised in the heart of Protestant Shankill.who represented Ireland - because boxing is organised on an all-island basis in Ireland - in the Seoul Olympics in 1988 at the age of 17. He was asked to carry the Irish flag at the opening ceremony and maybe was too young to realise how that would be perceived back in parts of Belfast.
The third story is the least well known, I guess. But I thought it's worth retelling here because it's a little cameo of the way sports stories are constantly at the mercy of politics. It concerns a cyclist called Noel Teggart, a lorry driver from Banbridge. Teggart was 31. He was representing Ireland, cycling, like boxing, being one of those sports organised on an all-island basis. Unfortunately there were other Irishmen in Munich  who were keen to make a protest. Members of the National Cycling Association, an organisation banned by the sport, wanted to make a protest against the "British occupation of Northern Ireland". To do so they hid in a ditch all night with the aim of then jumping up and interrupting the race.
Unfortunately, they didn't realise the race had been delayed for 24 hours. Still, they were back in the ditch 24 hours later and when it finally got underway they emerged from hiding, grabbed Teggart's bike and refused to let him move for a couple of minutes, by which time whatever chances he had in the race were long gone.
The story of cycling in Ireland after partition is a litany of organisations being banned and new organisations being formed usually along religious and political lines. Teggart was unfortunate in that his story was subsumed into this larger one.
And to little purpose in the end. Although the NCA's protest - although widely reported in Ireland, north and south - was largely ignored by the rest of the world. That's because the Palestinian Black September group had by then mounted their own protest by seizing Israeli athletes in the Olympic village. The siege ended in a gun battle that killed nine of the athletes. It remains the greatest disaster in Olympic history and the greatest stain on the Olympic ideal. The 40th anniversary of that tragedy is just around the corner. 

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sporting Snobbery ... A Confession

Is it me or has the Tour de France been a bit dull this year? No? So definitely just me then? Honestly, I can't say I've been able to get too excited about the prospect of the first ever British winner of the greatest race in sport. Good on Bradley Wiggins and all that, but his success has not really raised my heart rate.
Two reasons. One is that the race itself this year has been quite unexceptional. Team Sky has bossed it and as a result Wiggins has never really been truly tested. Maybe that's because there's no one good enough to test him (except his team mate Chris Froome).
Yes, I know that controlling the race is itself a huge sign of sporting prowess but it's not what I want from the Tour. My most cherished cycling memories have always been those moments - usually in the mountains; I've never been that bothered about the sprint finishes - where a rider is on his own against his closest rivals and has to put up or shut up. And so, as I've mentioned before, my favourite Tour moment of all is Stephen Roche's astonishing recovery on La Plagne in the 1987 tour when he hauled himself back to within spitting distance of Pedro Delgado after the Spaniard had attacked and opened up a 90-second lead. That and the time the (dope-assisted) Bjarne Riis rode away from all his rivals (including Miguel Indurain) on Hautacam in the 1996 tour in a contemptuous display of acceleration, not once, not twice, but three times.

If I'm honest, though, this isn't just about sporting taste. There's something else going on here too that I think I have to own up to. The reason I kind of don't really want Bradley Wiggins to win is that, well, he's not exotic enough for me. He's called Bradley and he's British and he doesn't fit in with my own sports snobbery. 
Back in the 1980s when Channel 4 first started screening highlights of the Tour part of the appeal for me was that it was not mainstream. I was living in Scotland but only my bike-loving mates Gerry and Davy knew who Robert Millar was at the time. Following the Tour was a mark of difference for us.
And marks of difference mattered then. Pop culture in the eighties was very bipolar. You either bought into the Tina Turner/Phil Collins mainstream or you bought the NME, listened to the Smiths and kidded yourself on you were cooler than everyone else. Coolness was a political statement. It meant you'd probably heard of  (if not actually heard) Test Department, seen the odd Wim Wenders movie and didn't vote for the Tories. Almost inevitably that outlook extended into your sporting tastes. And so Alex Higgins was cool, Steve Davis wasn't. Eric Bristow was cool, John Lowe wasn't.
You (okay, I) formed perceptions of sportsmen and women and put them in one camp or another. Davis was uncool because he was linked to Barry Hearn, was a very effective snooker player and turned up once at a Tory party conference. Alex Higgins was Alex Higgins.
In more recent years I've rather warmed to Davis, while the more I learned about Higgins's messy life the less I liked him. I still think he was the more thrilling - if not necessarily better - snooker player though.
You would think I'd have grown out of this by now, but if I'm honest I still carry a fair freight of sporting snobbery around with me. And so it doesn't seem right to me that a British team called Team Sky should dominate the Tour. It's too ordinary. I want it to be some exotically-named Spaniard or Italian. Or Colombian. (Whatever did happen to Luis Herrera?)
 Nor do I want English teams to win the Champions League (unless, of course, it happened to be Spurs, but I don't think there's any danger of that happening soon). And I rather enjoy it when England or Scotland are outplayed by a technically superior European or South American side because it plays into my vision of the rest of the world being cooler than us (though if it's Northern Ireland playing allegiance trumps snobbery).
I can't be alone in this, can I? There must be many of you out there who rave about the superiority of Serie A over the Premier League, or talk knowingly of the superiority of Cuban boxing in comparison to the rest of the world. (Examples welcome.)
The real triumph of cycling in recent years, of course, has been the huge explosion in its popularity in Britain. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins the sport is moving into the mainstream. It's getting extensive coverage in the press (rather than just a column buried somewhere deep in the sports pages) and you can buy creamy, luxurious magazines like Rouleur dedicated to the sport.
In some sense I'm thrilled by this - there's a sense of vindication inherent in the fact that everyone is cottoning on to something I've always known about -  but the snob in me is still slightly put out. Where were you all in 1984, eh? Now excuse me, I've got some Rough Trade B-sides to catalogue.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Green Days

Now that Spain are champions of the world and champions of Europe (again),  it's worth remembering that it wasn't always so. Here's a slightly longer version of the piece I wrote for the Sunday Herald to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Northern Ireland's victory over Spain in Valencia in the 1982 World Cup:

"Gerry Armstrong ... What a worker he is ..." For most of us, I’d imagine, there are a handful of sporting moments that we hold closer than most, moments where the thrill of what we’ve seen has seared itself into our memory never to be dislodged. " ... Striding away there with Hamilton to his right ..." Ask me and I’ll happily reel my own off: Ricky Villa’s goal in the 1981 FA cup final replay, the Chris Eubanks-Nigel Benn fights of the early 1990s, Stephen Roche coming round the corner on La Plagne still close enough to the wheelrims of Pedro Delgado to ensure he’d win the 1987 Tour de France, Usain Bolt seeming to slow down to look around as he won gold at Beijing four years ago (running the fastest time ever as an added bonus). "Still Billy Hamilton, he’s gone past Tendilio ... " But my absolute favourite came 30 years ago, on a hot night in Valencia, soundtracked by John Motson’s commentary. " ... Arconada ... Armstrong!"
Thirty years. Half a lifetime. I can still see the living room of my parents’ house in Coleraine where I sat that night; the sofa, the fireplace, which in winter still held a real fire back then, and the TV in the corner, small by today’s standards, the colour images fizzing and strobing from the satellite feed. I was just a couple of weeks from my 19th birthday, a couple of months from leaving Northern Ireland to start life as a student in Scotland and start untying myself from the place I came from.
At the time it couldn’t come soon enough. The Troubles had started when I was six years old and were showing no signs of stopping. The early eighties were a particularly grim time. We were only a year on from the hunger strikes. A month on from this night the IRA will detonate bombs in Hyde Park and Regents Park in London, killing 11 British soldiers. Back then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be Northern Irish any more.
But I still wanted Northern Ireland - a ragged bunch of motley journeymen with only one recognised world class player (Pat Jennings) - to win that night. They were still my team. I still sat forward in my chair as Gerry Armstrong picked up the ball in his own half and surged forward. He was the only white-shirted player on the screen until Billy Hamilton moved up on the right wing. Hamilton played for Burnley, had a wee spidey moustache on his upper lip and would never be as famous again as he was on this night. Armstrong knocked the ball wide to him and moved towards the Spanish box. Hamilton almost casually shrugged off a challenge from the Spanish defender Miguel Tendilio and pushed the ball into the Spanish penalty box. But right at the Spanish keeper Luis Arconada unfortunately. The keeper just had to drop on it and that would be the end of the attack. But for some reason Arconada elects to punch instead. Straight to Armstrong who fires it into the back of the net. 1-0 to Northern Ireland. For a moment the world - or my world at any rate - stopped.
On my TV screen Armstrong is embraced by a limping Sammy McIlroy and given a bear hug by Whiteside (who at 17 and a matter of days is the youngest player to play in the World Cup finals to this point) and as he does so I swear I hear the whole street I live in erupt; a ragged, raucous cheer echoing from house to house. This is the sporting moment I love most, the moment I remember feeling most simply, happily, giddily Northern Irish too. For the next 40 minutes Spain batter at the Northern Ireland back line but can’t find a way through. Northern Ireland have beaten the hosts, topped their group and gone through to the next round of the World Cup. It is a glorious night.
A few hours later at around two in the morning my father is on patrol with the Ulster Defence Regiment between Magherafelt and Garvagh when a 500lb landmine is detonated under his landrover. He came limping home the next morning (limping worse than Sammy McIlroy) and told me in the vaguest possible terms what had happened.
What’s curious to me now is how far apart my head had separated these two memories. It was only a couple of years ago, prompted by reading a private history of his regiment, that I realised they had happened within hours of each other. It’s as if I had deliberately rubbed out the linkage, as if not wanting to sully the good memory with the bad.
June 1982 is the high point of my life as a Northern Irish sports fan. Other days and nights - arguably greater days and nights - followed: watching Dennis Taylor, Barry McGuigan, right up to Rory McIlroy winning the US Open. But they’re not football.
I guess 1982 has other resonances too. It was - or I like to think so - represents a utopian moment, a moment when Catholics and Protestants played together in the same team and no one thought anything of it. Just over ten years later Northern Ireland would play the Republic of Ireland in Windsor Park on a night full of sectarian chanting. Just over 20 years later Neil Lennon would receive a death threat and never play for his country again. And even today players like Sunderland James McClean who come from nationalist backgrounds say they don’t feel comfortable playing for Northern Ireland, despite major efforts by fans and the Irish Football Association to address the problem. Back in 1982, Gerry Armstrong, a player who grew up in nationalist west Belfast was a hero of the fans. He never received any sectarian barracking because of his religion.
I can’t believe anyone today would still claim that sport and politics don’t mix. The problem in Northern Ireland has been that for the last 40 years sport and politics have too often mixed in the same way as guncotton and nitroglycerin. June 25, 1982 is one of those moments, though, when that didn’t apply. That’s why it still seems something to savour.
A few years ago I went to a race meeting at Down Royal. On the way I passed the site of the former Maze prison. It was a clear summer’s day. There were people dressed in their Sunday best, punters in denim (many with Billy Hamilton taches) and bookies all of whom were from south of the border. The punters got drunk, the well-dressed had their pictures taken, the bookies got rich. I remember standing in the grandstand, tearing up another losing betting slip and looking out across the course to the fields beyond. Those tight little fields that surrounded me in my younger years. All those different shades of green. And I thought of all they might represent. The green of the land, the green of football shirts, the green of UDR landrovers. People were cheering and - I’m pretty certain about this memory - I thought about Gerry Armstrong.