Why the rest of the world should do sports the Irish way
I may not play a lot of sports, but I love watching others do so. In fact, documentaries and sports are pretty much the only TV I can stand these days. So you can understand me when I say I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that we, the rest of the world, have been doing sports wrong. It turns out Ireland knew how to do it all along, and while they’ve not yet told the outside how it should be done, I’ve snuck behind their lines and today I’ll be clearing the path to a brighter future for our sports.
In most countries, the highest level of sports that attracts the familiar crowds of tens, even hundreds of thousands of people are played on a professional level. While this means access to high-grade equipment, a bigger crowd reach and more profits (and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s mostly about the profits), it also brings about corruption, an absurd amount of highly complicated rules and regulations and arguably causes a slow, terminal intellectual decay (not through the games themselves, but through the type of players the system tends to praise and reward), while taking away the very thing that makes those games enjoyable, fun. Many things, including sports, loses its amateur appeal when it stops being about the entertainment of players and starts being about profits. This is perhaps why modern sports are becoming increasingly distant from the people while the level of corruption increases every day.
But what can we do about it? We can’t really do amateur sports anymore, can we? Well, we can. At least the Irish can, and they’re doing it right now (well not literally right now in the middle of the night, but in this day and age). Before we look into their system, let’s first talk about their sports. The Irish have two national games that are as far as I’m aware unique to Ireland (perhaps with the exception of Irish communities in the States); Hurling and Gaelic Football. These two sports are very similar both in rules and in viewing experience. Both games have two goals, one at each side, and the sidebars extend into the heavens not unlike the rugby poles do. There’s a ball in each game, and the purpose is to get the balls into the nets, or at least over them. I really don’t have the technical expertise to properly convey the absolute chaos involved, so I’ll just put a video here somewhere to help illustrate.
Watch the video to have a taste of Irish sports:
However, the games themselves aren’t what I want to talk about in this particular piece. Instead, it’s how they handle these sports off the pitch. Irish Hurling and Gaelic Football leagues are, as I’ve been told many times, completely amateur. I made the mistake of calling them semi-pro more than once, because while I knew the players were all doing it part-time and weren’t getting paid for it, I assumed the level of dedication and the quality of management and even the size of it all warranted some degree of professionalism. There are no huge personal payoffs involved in these sports. Players aren’t forced to put aside their lives to play, and instead are able to play as a hobby (even though as I’ve been told they may get some special treatment every now and then for being local heroes). They have regular jobs and are actual productive members of society. They also have regional, smaller teams and competitions instead of large, highly condensed tournaments, and thus being a fan is a lot more personal and special. Aha, some of you are saying, in this system, no viewer gets to see the best of the best compete, the clash of titans, if you will. Well, you’re wrong.
Every summer, counties come up with teams, not unlike national teams, consisting of the “best of the best”, and these counties compete with other counties in a summer long competition, with a huge final game attended by over 80.000 people live (plus the entire island watching it on their TVs). So far, I’ve seen three hurling finals, and they were some of the best sports events I got to experience, not only because of how fun the sports themselves are, but also because the atmosphere created by the amateur, regional, county-based system the Irish use.
Most sports competitions have gone pro now, and they are realistically too big to go small again. Still, one can’t help but dream how less violent and more satisfying watching a game of football would be if you could safely say the players’ motives were not more than fun and fame. When I watch a game of football today, I see anger in stress and hostility, not just on the pitch, but amongst the crowds, and I see clubs merchandising the hostility they fuel. And as a sports fan, I remain hopeful, because I saw in Ireland, another way. Perhaps the right way. Definitely a better one. I can’t tell you to come to Ireland solely for the sports, but I can assure you that if you do come, you’ll be enjoying their games.
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