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Covid rules Why is it deemed safe to travel in a taxi or train, yet Croke Park sit hushed and bereft?

Ireland has looked on with increasing envy as, one by one, the planet’s storied coliseums are reanimated.


Dublin lift the Sam Maguire Cup before an empty Croke Park Stadium

Dublin lift the Sam Maguire Cup before an empty Croke Park Stadium

Dublin lift the Sam Maguire Cup before an empty Croke Park Stadium

AS he uncovered long overgrown pathways back to glory, Rory McIlroy landed on an eternal sporting truth.

“When we came back from the pandemic, I thought I’d enjoy the peace and quiet a little bit. I soon realised that to bring the best out of myself, I need this.”

He was pointing to the impenetrable fortifications of humanity encircling Quail Hollow’s 18th green on Sunday, an animated wall of sound thunderously acclaiming McIlroy’s rediscovery, after 553 days of a half-forgotten past.

For Rory, it was the noise as much as the achievement of a first tournament victory in 18 months that confirmed he had emerged from the silent season of the hero.

That blessed communion between competitor and congregation felt like the healing of a fracture.

Ireland has looked on with increasing envy as, one by one, the planet’s storied coliseums are reanimated.

On Saturday, some 73,126 spectators packed into a roofed Texan arena – eclipsing the 43-year-old American record for an indoor fight set by Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks – to watch Canelo Alvarez bludgeon Billy Joe Saunders into retirement.

A week ago, the house-full signs blinked at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, Mark Selby and Dublin-based Shaun Murphy finding something vital in their World Snooker Championship final that has been mislaid for over a year – the thrilling interaction between athlete and audience.

As those of us who had a ringside seat at the English venue to enjoy Ken Doherty’s journey to the heavens can attest, The Crucible is a claustrophobic, smaller baby brother of Dublin’s still boarded-up Gaiety.

Steph Curry and Nickola Jokic and a fit-again LeBron James head into the NBA playoffs next week with the roar of Warriors, Nuggets and Lakers fans blowing like a redemptive wind through their arenas and their veins.

And still, Ireland’s community of sporting obsessives remain warehoused in lockdown penitentiaries.

Yawning outdoor spaces - Croke Park, the Aviva, Leopardstown, Semple Stadium, McHale Park, Clones, Thomond Park, Tallaght Stadium - sit hushed and bereft.

Swaddled in endless layers of caution, Government and Nphet offer only vague half-promises that a tiny few July droplets of humanity might – yes, might - be allowed trickle through a hairline crack in the sluice gates.

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Late last month, Melbourne’s MCG, Australia’s towering landmark, welcomed 78,113 spectators to the AFL collision of city heavyweights, Collingwood and Essendon.

How its northern hemisphere twin would welcome that same electrifying jolt of renewal, the prospect of the padlocks at last coming off the Hill 16 and Hogan Stand turnstiles.

There are those in seats of power who seem to rail against even the most civil questioning of policy.

But, is there not an obvious inconsistency in it being deemed safe for people to travel together in the confined spaces of taxi cabs and train carriages, while not a single paying soul is permitted on the decks of a gigantic, aircraft-carrier dimensioned palace like Pairc Ui Chaoimh or the RDS?

On Saturday last, the two most recent All-Ireland champions, Limerick and Tipp, played out a fine draw as hurling stepped out of a five-month wilderness.

For a contest with the capacity to touch the hearts of the people, it was cruel to see the LIT Gaelic Grounds – a thousand times the acreage of the barbers and beauticians which are (thankfully) allowed to trade again – sit as lonely and forlorn as a stricken galleon lurching on the high seas.

Of course, there is a requirement to be guarded. Public health must always be prioritised. But, again, the evidence is overwhelming about the miniscule risks attached to outdoor gatherings.

There is also a requirement to be guarded when crossing a busy road. It doesn’t mean pedestrians are banned from doing so at all times and until further notice. Proceed with caution is the understood message.

With the most vulnerable among a total of almost 1.5m vaccinated, with the national tally of hospitalised Covid patients not dissimilar to the pre-pandemic rush hour numbers on a single double-decker bus, with every scientific study insisting the risk of outdoor contamination is tiny, the absence of any high-throttle urgency to seize the moment is maddening.

And, illogical.

The financial, mental and emotional upsides of allowing some spectators to attend rugby or soccer or horse racing or Gaelic games are self-evident.

In the recent blast of good weather, parks and beaches and canal banks were thronged with people eager to live again.

It was (lack of ample public toilets and litter bins aside) wonderful to behold.

Yet, Croke Park, capacity 82,300, is not allowed accommodate 10,000 or 1,000, or even a token 100 spectators. It reeks of double standard and a killing lack of both imagination and empathy.

That, and an inability among those in power to cede even the tiniest fragment of control, or to properly trust the vast majority of compliant people who have quietly endured so much over an endless period of suspended animation.

For Saturday’s FA Cup final, Wembley, similarly dimensioned to GAA headquarters, will house 21,000 supporters, a painkiller to soothe the 14-month toothache of absence.

Outdoors, in fresh air, following established Covid protocol, every sensible scientific analysis insists this is completely safe. Not to mention life-affirming.

When Tipp and Cork meet in Semple Stadium the same night, the only sounds, beyond the clash of the ash and the roars of players and coaches, will be the whisper of tumbleweed blowing across the Killinan and Town End terracing.

It is true that the UK is well ahead of Ireland in its vaccination programme.

But why not, a tiny chink of light, why not even a thousand worshippers on the pews in a Thurles cathedral that can house upwards of 50,000?

For many, the rigidity of thought speaks of an infuriating reluctance to treat people in an adult fashion.

Again, the contrast with other nations is striking.

In New York, the authorities are offering free tickets to baseball games as an incentive to those who have been reluctant to sign up for vaccination.

While countries all around our own continent – most at similar levels to Ireland in vaccination roll-out – enthusiastically embraced this summer’s European Championships, the Taoiseach haughtily deemed Uefa “out of order”.

Their crime? Insisting spectators - a fraction of capacity - be admitted as a condition of hosting games.

Across the ocean in Charlotte, they rose to acclaim a golfer rising from the debris of a torrid 18 months.

Rory McIlroy inhaled the oxygen of humanity and felt the rush of exhilaration that comes to an athlete when his deeds grant him ownership of the arena.

The wonder that dappled his features spoke eloquently of the moment's electricity, while offering Ireland a tantalising glimpse of paradise lost.

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