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Let the Games Begin!

Crowds, craic and competition, with serious issues in the mix

CONCERNS Questions about the safety and whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai have persisted since she accused China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. Pic: si.robi/cc-by-sa-2.0

Both the Six Nations and the Winter Olympics kick off this week, and both events look like they could be interesting for several reasons – some more positive than others.

For years, the Six Nations has been billed as the greatest rugby tournament on earth. And while the old rivalries and traditions and huge crowds are fantastic, it’s a pretty myopic judge who thinks the rugby is always great. Lions supporters complain about the boredom of the recent tour to South Africa, but Six Nations matches haven’t always been about free-flowing, running rugby. The later years of Joe Schmidt’s Irish tenure are but one example of a team trying to bore their opponents into submission.

This year, though, we could be in for a serious treat. Under Andy Farrell, Ireland have thrown off the ‘bash-it-up-the-guts’ shackles and realised that running and passing and playing positive rugby can also be successful.

But it’s not just Ireland who are rejuvenated. Everyone remembers Ireland beating the All Blacks in November. Do you remember that France hammered them a week later? With an average age of around 25, the French are attacking from everywhere like French teams are supposed to, and will want to lay down a marker before a home World Cup next year. England seem to have a found some promising young backs as well, in Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward, giving Eddie Jones the chance to reinvent his team yet again.

Don’t forget the others too, Wales did what they seem to be able to do regularly, and won the tournament last year, despite being tipped by precisely nobody. And if Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg get the chance to play the game their way, matches with Scotland will at least be exciting. As for Italy, well they make nice food and fast cars, but are unlikely to trouble the engravers this year.

While it’s nice to be optimistic, other issues are likely to arise across the tournament. Covid hasn’t fully gone away and is still going to have a big impact on the tournament. Ten French players were ruled out with Covid last week, including several of their biggest names. But thankfully all of the countries involved have announced a significant easing of restrictions, meaning there will be crowds and craic for the first time since early 2019.

Injuries will definitely affect some teams more than others. The person who figures out why one team suffers four injuries in a match while their opponent reports that many for a whole season will have every sporting organisation in the world flocking to their door.

In contrast, the Winter Olympics in Beijing most definitely does not have everyone flocking to the airport. Nine nations – including Britain, the US and Australia – have confirmed a diplomatic boycott of the Games as a response to China’s human rights record, specifically the treatment of the Uyghur people of Xinjiang Province in the country’s northwest. These countries will still send athletes, but not political representatives. Several other countries will not be sending political representatives due to Covid concerns.

Further complicating matters are continuing concerns for the safety and whereabouts of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who publicly accused a senior government official of sexual assault in November. The Australian Open tennis has become even more politically charged than during the Novak Djokovic saga by the initial banning and subsequent allowing of spectators to wear T-shirts with the slogan ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’

The fact the tournament is sponsored by a Chinese state-owned alcohol company may have something to do with tournament organisers refusing to allow political protests on the grounds.

The only person outside of China to have had contact with Peng is the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, who spoke with the player by video link coordinated by Games organisers. Bach reported everything was above board, that Peng was grand and said they should catch up for dinner when he is in Beijing. So that’s good, because we all know that huge sporting bodies like the IOC and FIFA can be trusted.

Anything could happen over the next few weeks, be that on the pitch or the slopes or in the physio or meeting room. Pull up a seat and watch.

This post first appeared in The Mayo News

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