Word just came out that the Penn State football team will square off against Central Florida later this fall. Not to exciting, really. Just another football game, right?
Not exactly. In 2014, the Nittany Lions are planning to take their opening game on the road. And not just down to Florida either. They want to leap across the pond to Croke Park, Ireland’s legendary stadium in Dublin.
Here in the United States, we pretty much assume that European countries aren’t terribly interested in what we Americans call football. We think they’re all crazy about what they call football and what we call soccer.
And while that soccer is popular in Ireland, Croke Park is primarily used for a whole different kind of sport. Two sports in fact.
One sport is called hurling. It’s a 3,000-year-old game that is the likely forebearer of hockey (both the ice and field versions) and lacrosse. Hurling is what this very blog is dedicated to. In “Hurley to Rise,” I look at how hurling is being played in America, offer tips on how to play and provide some guidance to the fledgling teams that are popping up.
The other sport Croke Park is known for is also called football, but it’s not anything like what Penn State plays, and its only a little bit like soccer. The Croke Park version of football is commonly called Gaelic Football outside of Ireland.
Both sports attract huge crowds to Croke Park, which can seat more than 82,000 spectators. The sports are collectively organized by the Gaelic Athletic Association, a group dedicated to preserving and strengthening Irish culture.
Gaelic Football follows pretty much the same rules as hurling, except that it has no stick and the ball is more like a soccer ball. Instead of hitting the gaelic football, you kick it. Other than that, the games are quite close in rules and playing style.
Now you might think this is all rather quaint. They play these nice little sports on their nice little island and no one pays any attention to them.
But you’d be wrong, because here in America, they’re actually becoming fairly popular.
There are gaelic sports clubs in the Nittany Lions’ and UCF Knights’ back yards, for example. In fact, there are a lot of teams all across the United States. You can find a list of U.S. hurling teams here, most of which are organized by American divisions of the GAA.
And if any of this seems remotely interesting to you, contact those teams and find out how you can get on the field (or simply come out and watch a game). They will, without a doubt, be happy to have you.
Finally, I invite all you Penn State and UCF fans to take a look around this blog and learn even more about hurling. Then, when you’re off to Ireland next year, you’ll have plenty to talk about with the natives.
LEARNING CURVE: Playing hurling is a different from many team sports since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to truly set up plays that outwit your opponents.
We return to my conversation with Mike, a guy working out with the St. Louis hurling clubs, as he worked to learn more about the national sport of Ireland.
Mike continues on in his letter (which I’ve edited a bit):
This weekend in the rookie’s practice I had a very good run on goal, soloed it with people hacking away at me, juked the heck out of one guy… and then completely messed up at the mouth of the goal … I didn’t even think about looking for teammates or even just attempting the point. On the other hand it was my first legit attempt on goal, and actually the first time I ever possessed the ball in a game-like setting.
Besides working on fundamentals, and working on looking for teammates with a better position, is there any way I can improve my situational awareness? I’m not sure how I got so close to the goal because the only thing I was thinking was “Oh crap you have the ball!” Is this something that comes naturally by just scrimmaging?
Basically I am asking, how do I become a sound offensive (or all around player) and actually be productive with the ball?
Regarding situational awareness, its not surprising a new player is a little green with it, even with prior team-sport experience. Hurling, while it shares a lot in common with Lacrosse and even ice hockey, has a high degree of randomness in it. In fact, it’s almost impossible to truly set up plays other than baiting an opponent away from one of your teammates or simply faking them out.
As with anyone adopting a new game, such awareness it will come, especially as you run through some of the more complex drills available in hurling. These drills don’t teach you to set up plays, but rather they are meant to hone your skills and promote skill usage while on the run.
Names in the game: One clear bit of advice I offer to new players is this: Learn the names and voices of all your teammates, especially those hailing from Ireland. More importantly, learn to listen while you’re on the field, because they will be hollering advice through the entire game — not just when you have possession! Once you begin to tune those guys in, you’ll soon hear’em even when you’re practicing on your own. Some times it will just be “Jonesy is open!” but eventually you’ll find the more practical advice sticks with you, such as “both hands on the hurley!”
Over the last few years, Hurley to Rise has read a few books about the sport of hurling that have helped us understand the game better. We Americans need all the help we can get understanding hurling and its finer points, and sometimes a book is just the ticket.
With that in mind, I can say I wholeheartedly recommend these as Christmas stocking stuffers for the hurling enthusiast on your gift list.
“Hurling USA: America Discovers an Ancient Irish Sport” by Denis O’Brien — An exploration of the sport as it arrived in America, disappeared and reappeared in modern times. History lessons aside, the author talks to a number of modern enthusiasts about how they first encountered the sport and brought it to their own little corner of the United States. Originally an e-book, it’s now available in print form too. (In full disclosure: I am quoted in the book.)
“Ireland’s Professional Amateurs: A Sports Season at its Purest” by Andy Mendlowitz – This was one of the first books I read about hurling (and its related sport, Gaelic Football) and it delved into explaining some of the background elements of the game in Ireland. In particular it looks at how the amazing athletes who play the game aren’t compensated for their play. Instead they do play out of pride for their homeland. It’s really a foreign concept to many Americans — these guys perform at a pro sport level, but don’t get paid millions for their work. Heck, they don’t even get paid thousands for their work.
“The Wolfhound Guide to Hurling” by Brendan Fullam — This thin book offers a look at the historical and mythical roots of the game and offers some early accounts of those who reported on the sport. It supposes that the reader knows quite a bit about hurling and its legendary players, but despite those complaints it’s quite interesting.
CROKE PARK: The stadium hosting the the 2012 All-Ireland Hurling Championship quickly filled up toward the end of the minors match as the crowd geared up for the seniors battle between Galway and Kilkenny.
As the Minors Hurling match was closing down, the stands at Croke Park began to fill up as all of Ireland settled in to watch the 2012 All-Ireland Seniors match between Galway and Kilkenny.
In the minors match, the stadium in Dublin had only filled to about one-quarter of its capacity. But by the end of that game, which leads directly into the seniors match, the crowd had blossomed to more than 80,000.
As the seniors game broadcasters and analysts hit the field, the crowd proved too noisy for them to even hear well, as they started to clutch their headphones to hear one another.
BIG CROWD: Just before the game started, the hurling teams marched into Croke Park stadium and broadcasters announced that more than 80,000 spectators had shown up for the game.
Before the start of the game, their was a short pregame show featuring a procession of the two senior teams, flags from every county in Ireland. The most amusing sight was two balloons that carried massive flags for County Galway and County Kilkenny.
BALLOONS: The pregame show featured an advertisement for a tourism event in Ireland set for next year. “The Gathering” is meant to draw in a Irish diaspora from around the world. Two floating balloons featured the flags of Kilkenny and Galway.
After theatrics with the flags, the hurling teams assembled on the field for a minute of silence — but I didn’t hear for what. After that rather noisy minute, the game commenced.
QUIET PLEASE: The massive crowd on hand could be seen during the moment of silence before Sunday’s All-Ireland Hurling final between Galway and Kilkenny.
As the glow of the 2012 London Olympics fades, some hurling fans might be wondering “Will there ever be a game of hurling at the Olympics?”
While the answer for the immediate future is “no,” the sport could make it to the Olympics some time in the decades to come.
THE MAIN REASON
First off, one has to understand the main reason why hurling isn’t in the Olympics: Not enough countries play significant amounts of hurling to justify an Olympic tournament.
GOLD MEDALS: Hurling is a sport that was created in Ireland, and with a lot of work it could develop into an international game. Once it hits that level, it could be considered for a future Olympics.
If it happened today, or even 10 years from now, any international contest in hurling would be dominated by a team from Ireland, the sport’s home country. Irish hurlers would, quite simply, devastate their opponents from other countries. It would be like having kindergarteners playing high-schoolers in a game of basketball.
Take a look at American Football. It suffers the same problem: lack of competitiveness. A U.S. “dream team” would completely destroy any assembled by another country.
So right off the bat is there’s no hurling in the Olympics because there’s no quality competition available to Ireland.
And that is the simple answer — the simple answer to the simplest version of the “Hurling at the Olympics” question. No one can touch the Irish at hurling, so there’s no point in creating an international competition.
But that leads us to a better question: “How could hurling become an Olympic sport?” That is, what is needed to insure quality games of hurling on an Olympic stage?
First off, let’s tack off a few things that the hurling community is doing right.
1. Governing body: According to the basic IOC rules, every Olympic sport must have an international governing body.
Citing American football again, you’ll note that there’s no such organization for American Football. Well, in truth, there is such an organization — the International Federation of American Football — based in France, but it offers no oversight to the way Americans (or even Canadians) play the game. Can you imagine some organization in France handing down sanctions against the the San Diego Chargers, for example? Or an organization telling the Canada’s CFL to remove the two-point conversion from the rulebooks? No, that just isn’t going to happen.
Unlike the NFL and the CFL, the world of hurling is actually dominated by one organization, Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association. While the GAA is essentially an Irish organization, it has a world-wide reach and has made decent efforts to push the sport past its national boundaries, so it can technically qualify as an international governing body. 2. Gender equality: Olympic sports also need to include both genders, and for that hurling gets bonus points again. The GAA actively promotes camogie, the game of hurling for women. Just like many sports, there aren’t a lot of camogie players out there, but there’s certainly enough to build up to an Olympic level.
With those minor hurdles cleared, we come back to the getting into the Olympics in general.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
It appears that there’s a hard way and an easy way for a sport to graduate to become an Olympic sport. Let’s look at both:
The Hard Way: The GAA would spend roughly the next 20 to 30 years aggressively building and promoting the sport of hurling in additional countries. It would certainly help its case if it managed to push the game to every continent and through multiple cultures.
In Europe and North America, it has a decent enough showing. Over in Australia and New Zealand, they wouldn’t have too hard of a time to build up some organizations either. Just a little more investment of time and money in those zones would create some real competitors.
Believe it or not, Argentina once had a thriving hurling scene, but that was dampened by World Wars I and II. Still, reviving it might be possible. Once it had a foothold again in South America, it could easily spread through the rest of the continent.
Asia and Africa would obviously prove to be the most difficult sells. China certainly has the money and people power to give a hurling team a try. Dangle the possibility of more Olympic gold in front of them and they would very likely take on the challenge. The GAA just needs to supply some coaching. The Japanese might appreciate the game too, given their interest in baseball. The starting point in Africa would logically be South Africa, but beyond that it might not gain much more ground. (Although check the video below!)
Over every continent, the GAA should “sell” the game to countries that are already fielding strong teams in sports such as field hockey, lacrosse and baseball. These sports share many of the same skills as hurling, and countries that show strength in those could pick up hurling in just a few generations of players.
Once the GAA gets those foreign clubs started and sufficiently competitive, it’s just a petition away from playing for Olympic gold.
But like I said, that would take forever. Decades of work. Hundreds of millions in investments.
The Easy Way: There’s another route to the Olympics for sports such as hurling. All that needs to happen is for Ireland to become a Summer Games host country and run hurling as a demonstration sport.
You see in the past, the IOC allowed host countries to include non-medaling sports on the Olympic schedule. The problem is that demonstration sports have been gone since 1992, but that could easily change in the next few years with simple ruling from the IOC. (And it’s an option that many sporting organizations and fans want back.)
The key to “The Easy Way,” of course, is earning the right to host the Olympics — a massive undertaking in its own right that takes — you guessed it — decades of work. Hundreds of millions in investments.
So yes, hurling could be an Olympic sport … given lots of time, effort and money.