Enough of the Dubs debate: time to bring back Superstars
We were toying with Jack McCaffrey in the Gibson hotel the morning after the All-Ireland when the idea began to take hold. Exactly how fast are you over the 100 metres? And ever wondered what you’d run over the 400 metres hurdles?
“Nah, I’ll leave that to Thomas Barr,” he said, and the rest suddenly sounded like sporting television history. Because if they can revive The Underdogs series after 10 years then why not Superstars?
Irish sport has never been in a better place, and even if there’s no more futile debate than arguing for or against the merits of one sporting discipline over the other, this would have irresistible appeal. At least for those of us well over 40 who can remember when Superstars was the best thing on TV before Brideshead Revisited came along. Part of the appeal is all this talk of the Dublin footballers also being magnificent athletes. Which of course they are, only exactly how magnificent compared to other athletes? And even if McCaffrey could run around 10 seconds for the 100m, how would he manage on the chin-up bar, in the swimming pool, or in a bike race?
Superstars, which first aired on US TV in 1973 and soon went global, was designed to answer such profound questions, a sort of decathlon of events which pitted elite athletes from different sports against each other, with often unexpected outcomes. It did after all find an unlikely and unbeatable world champion in the late Brian Budd, of Canadian soccer fame, who died in 2008 aged 56, and closer to home in Brian Jacks, Britain’s orange-sucking judo star. Jacks would often attract 16 million viewers on BBC, more than East-Enders gets now.
Designed not just to find the fastest, strongest, or highest, Superstars was also a test of nerve, at least in front of the TV cameras. The first Irish series aired in March 1979 – thus now primed for a 40th anniversary special – with some quite comical results. Then, as they might be now, the GAA was strongly represented in Kerry footballer Pat Spillane, Dublin’s Jimmy Keaveney, Cork dual star Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Limerick hurler Pat Hartigan, along with runner Noel Carroll, boxer Mick Dowling, swimmer David Cummins, racing driver Derek Daly, and soccer international David O’Leary.
After several fearless displays of indefatigable determination, Spillane emerged as Irish champion, ahead of Barry-Murphy, with Keaveney – in fairness not known for his athleticism at the time – finishing second last. With that Spillane also earned himself a trip to the International Superstars in the Bahamas, in a 12-man final that included Budd, New Zealand distance runner Peter Snell, NFL legend Jim Taylor, and British long jumper Lynn Davis. In the scorching heat Spillane still did us proud, even if finishing next to last, just ahead of Brazil’s two-time Formula One World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
It was unquestionably demanding, events typically including the 100m, 800m, an obstacle course, weightlifting, soccer-kicking skills, rowing, tennis, basketball, bike racing, shooting and/or swimming. Dublin footballer Bernard Brogan succeeded Spillane as Irish Superstars champion in 1980, and there’s no great reason to suspect that GAA dominance would not continue in modern times. Or is there?
After Britain’s success at the 2012 London Olympics, the BBC revived Superstars for a one-off edition, featuring their recent triathlon gold medallists Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, distance runner Mo Farah and heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua, among others, with Joshua outlasting them all, with an event to spare, perhaps not surprising given where he is now. Although so much for raw speed.
Sport Ireland sent around a welcome email this week reminding us that Irish athletes have so far collected 55 medals on the international sporting stage in 2018, from gymnast Rhys McClenaghan to the Irish women’s hockey team, any one of which would be worthy of a place on Superstars (a women’s edition as naturally worthy as the men’s).
Many of these, like the Dublin footballers, are also operating within the amateur code as they don’t make any money from the sport, such as European swimming bronze medallist Shane Ryan, or rowing silver medallists Paul and Gary O’Donovan.
Even Barr came away from Berlin with a European championship bronze medal and nothing else beyond a few extra endorsement deals and some assurance that his funding wouldn’t be cut.
The truth is that few, if any, of those 55 medal winners actually make money from their sport other than some sort of survival package, and in some cases the hours required just to survive in their sport makes it hard to find for time for any supplementary income. This was also part of the Superstars appeal, properly amateur athletes going up against the seasoned professionals, and try imagining how McCaffrey and Barr would get on against the likes of Keith Earls or Jordan Larmour, boxer Michael Conlon, or Republic of Ireland captain Seamus Coleman. Then throwing in Dan Martin or Nicholas Roche for a bit more fun.
The sight of McCaffrey tearing strips up and down Croke Park on Sunday, hardly once pausing long enough for us to recognise the New Balance logo on his boots, certainly suggests he’s the fastest man on the Dublin football team, the flying doctor reincarnate, although Paul Mannion, Eoin Murchan, Ciarán Kilkenny, even Brian Fenton might give him a run for his money.
There’s no denying Dublin’s athleticism either, and even after 40 years there may not be a more simple or entertaining test of it all than the Superstars. Has McCaffrey ever even timed himself over those 40m sprints fancied by American footballers? “No, is the short answer to that question, but we’ll do it now, outside the Gibson?” he said. Such are the obvious signs of the super star.
This was also part of the Superstars appeal, properly amateur athletes going up against the seasoned professionals, and try imagining how McCaffrey and Barr would get on against the likes of Keith Earls or Jordan Larmour
Superstar in the making? Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey