As Kellie Harrington’s story shows, sport can determine route of young lives, our politicians must realise this
The pendulum of Kellie Harrington’s life was swaying toward a grim kind of wretchedness.
hoplifting, alcohol abuse and swallowing pills had kicked up the roiling waters of her young life even before she had advanced beyond her final year in primary school.
Day was piled on aimless day, the terrain of possibility stretching before the young Dubliner rapidly shrinking.
A weekend extract from Kellie, the boxer’s highly anticipated collaboration with Roddy Doyle, outlined how Harrington might so easily have slipped through a crack on the pathway of existence.
As she candidly admits in the serialisation: “I was doing everything that a normal child wouldn’t do.”
Thursday’s full publication will narrate the story of how Kellie turned her life around to the point where she was able to cross a threshold in the national imagination with her golden invasion of the Tokyo Olympics and the Irish summer of 2021.
But it would surely be entirely safe to anticipate that her discovery of boxing was front and centre in that gloriously enriching transformation.
That a haphazard young life, one that saw Kellie arrested twice as she chased “the adrenaline rush” yielded by those shoplifting expeditions to Penneys, could give way to Olympic, World and European golds, is testament to the latent potential that lurks inside so many young people.
Potential that too often goes untapped.
Sport is so often the escape hatch from the badlands of youthful hopelessness. The alternate avenues it offers, roads where discipline and the value of hard work, self-improvement and straining to be the best you can be are signposted in blazing neon, are metamorphic.
In economically challenged communities, where levels of unemployment is a cancer and where education only rarely continues until third level, the parachute sport offers to kids in a tailspin can be quite literally lifesaving.
The headline on Seán O’Connor’s interview with Irish amateur striker Jimmy Hyland on these pages last Thursday was a stark insight into what are often binary choices.
It read: ‘There are lads selling drugs, but up the other end, there’s kids playing football.’
McHugh was born and reared in the Oliver Bond House, a vast development of inner-city flats across the Liffey from Harrington’s base in the north-inner city.
Immensely proud of his Dublin 8 background, McHugh talks of the “tug of war” between two ways of life: “If we had the facilities, it would be a no-brainer for [the kids].”
But they don’t have those facilities. In a tale that could be repeated in scores of communities where the need is greatest, Oliver Bond FC manager Eddie Keogh outlined how the detailed proposal he brought to Dublin City Council ran down a bureaucratic cul de sac.
The club is compelled to scrap and borrow and compromise to find somewhere to stage their games. They play their home matches over seven pitches across the capital.
Dublin City Council reward the club’s work in saving children from drug dealers with an annual grant of £500.
“We’re trying to prevent lads from going down the wrong path. It’s a fine line,” was Keogh’s summer description of how the club struggles to swim against a ceaseless tsunami of negative temptation.
It is a subject the Dublin Gaelic footballer turned Irish Independent columnist Philly McMahon has spoken and written about with powerful eloquence.
From Ballymun, one of the city’s most socially deprived areas, Philly took the turn that led to the local Kickhams GAA club, while his brother John was seduced by the narcotic needle.
While Philly won eight All-Ireland medals and became a successful businessman, John died after a long battle with drug addiction, aged just 31.
Sport or the streets, belonging or cast adrift, here are the kind of existential sliding door moments that go a long way towards determining the route maps of young lives.
The extraordinary voluntary work that permits boxing, GAA and soccer clubs across the country to bring light into lives blighted by darkness showcases the very best of community spirit.
That Ireland topped the medal table at boxing’s European Championships so shortly after the women’s football team qualified for the World Cup for the first time illustrates the remarkable harvest from local fields tended so heroically by coaches giving selflessly of their time.
Politicians, many of them revealing themselves as gold medal candidates in the cynical opportunism Olympics, shamelessly photobomb homecoming Irish athletes after yet another overseas triumph.
All the while funding for sport remains shamefully tiny as a percentage of overall Government spending, an afterthought.
Read the stories of Kellie Harrington or Philly McMahon and consider how sport paved their pathways with hope, and steered their lives away from the tentacles of calamity.
Then consider that the increase of €8m in the allocation to sport announced in the recent 2022 budget works out at substantially less than €2 per citizen of the state.
Read those numbers again. And weep.
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