The Fascination of What is Difficult: Athletics and the GAA – more in common than we’d care to admit

“Go away you fat GAA b*****d”, I’d say to my first house mate at college. A retort to his claim that running is for those who have no skill to do anything else. And on it would go. Twelve years later, not much has changed, yet everything has changed.

Back then, although we didn’t know it, we were firing shots from opposite tennis courts; neither of us understanding the other nor what we were doing in our respective sports.

I would laugh at his training routine which in my mind was as follows: bus to Longford on Thursday night and go training with the football club Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday and Sunday morning until he would hobble back through the door in Limerick not able to straighten his left knee.

To add fuel to the fire, he would regale me with stories of how all players had to be able to lift a certain weight. If you couldn’t lift the weight you’d have three or four lads help, but only after your knees had buckled. Another night, the manager told the lads the ideal BMI was 25 and “every fella should be aiming for that”. I had just started a sports science degree, hearing these stories with my head in my hands.

When it came to athletic performance, us runners took the moral high ground. We trained seven days a week unlike these GAA lads with their sporadic bursts. What was an All Ireland when our sport had world record holders? We were the masters of discipline and self-control. You weren’t going to catch us outside Coppers in the middle of the season.

Truth be told, we were dying the same death as the GAA lads, except ours was slow and painful. I and many of my colleagues didn’t understand athletic performance any better than the GAA. We too were consumed by a ‘more is better’ philosophy, we just spread it out over a period of time. He’d be out for six months after his knee buckled with an ACL tear. It would take me six months to strain my achilles but I’d be out for just as long.

On campus, us runners would lament the fact that the GAA lads had their heated dressing rooms, sponsored track-suits and what not. “Look at them lads,” we’d say, “they’re too over-weight to be even classed as an athlete. And look at us, training seven days a week and we can’t even get a banana for our troubles.”

Of course, in later years when I would ask the University for access to facilities for runners, they would be granted. The truth was the GAA was organised and we were not. Looking at the relative health of our associations, not much has changed.

Years later, I understand infinitely more about athletic performance than I did then. My 10km running times support this claim, although I would suffer many painful deaths before arriving to this point. The same can be said for the GAA in their application of training principles.

What we had in common all along, and were largely blind to, only became clear with age and absence. Living abroad, most recently in conversation with a New Zealand taxi driver, one of my favourite things to do when trying to give people a sense of Ireland is to explain how 80,000 people attend a game in September played by amateurs.

The look of shock and awe from those less familiar with our country is a joy to behold. Before this has been fully digested, I hit them with the fact the players must only play with the team from where they originated – they cannot be bought or sold. To the person with a reference frame built around the Super-Bowl in America, the English Premier League or Super Rugby in New Zealand, this is almost incomprehensible.

In essence, my housemate and I share a fascination in what is difficult, something that cannot be bought. His desire for that county championship was no different to my desire for a fast 10 km. Neither of us were getting paid. I have highly qualified friends that work as coaches with Olympic sports in Ireland – both tragically under-funded.

Another friend is a freelance sports journalist barely making ends meet, and one other friend dedicating every ounce of his spare time to coach the ladies GAA. None of them would have it any other way. Like William Butler Yeats – ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’, sustains them.