Enough of the Dubs de­bate: time to bring back Su­per­stars

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Rior­dan

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?

Un­ex­pected out­comes

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.

Sur­vival pack­age

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

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