Morrish walked off the course with his head held high, his departure sound-tracked by the cheers of hundreds of spectators. Even in a corner of the Italian Alps, they could appreciate the Irishman at the back of the field deserved their plaudits.
Sometimes in sport we forget the old saw about the taking part being just as important as the winning. The Irish flag was flown in Italy that day by a Corkman based in Norway who in his mid-thirties broke down a barrier and became his country’s first-ever representative at a cross-country skiing world championship. He’d paid for his own ticket for who else would fund such a crazy mission? He’d persuaded a Swede to help him prepare his skis by bartering whiskey. And then he went out and participated in an elite sport at the highest level at an age when most men are creaking under the onset of middle age.
“I’m a little bit disappointed, not about my performance but because I had to abandon,” said Morrish afterwards. “At one stage I was ahead of two guys but eventually I lost my rhythm and they just seemed to have better glide. Some guys were starting to object to being forced out. I know the rules and that’s just the way it goes. I had a great time, and I got a good response from the crowd.”
In a sporting landscape presently consumed with the deification of Premiership louts, the GPA’s lust for money and the ritual exaggeration of the Heineken Cup, the story of an obsessed Corkman titling at windmills deserves more airplay than it has got.
A couple of weeks from now, Morrish — two years shy of 40 — will take his skis to the Olympic Games in Torino. That much we read in the newspapers the other day and for most of us, it was probably the first we heard of this fantastic quest. But run your finger along the story of Morrish’s career in skiing and you realize that he is the sort of character who reminds us of what sport is actually about.
There isn’t a hope in hell he’ll bring home a medal of any hue from Torino and he’ll do well to avoid finishing last in his event. However, very few others will emerge from that competition with more glory. At a time when the Olympics have, between drug scandals and the financial shenanigans behind the bidding process, almost completely lost their luster, here is somebody who will have triumphed the moment he arrives in Italy. Who will embody the Olympic ideal more than somebody who has made the most incredible journey just to get there?
With a background in orienteering and a family sporting pedigree that includes a sister Fionnuala who was the national senior cross-country champion in 1979, Morrish took up skiing seriously when work took him to Norway in 2001. A few months after arriving in Oslo, he competed in his first ski orienteering world cup in Rovanemi, Finland and since then has combined a day job with Scandinavian chemical company Dynea with a serious competitive career. Although ski orienteering remains his first love, it isn’t an Olympic event so he developed a second passion for cross-country. His need to learn quickly was helped of course by the fact Oslo’s snow season lasts six months of the year.
“It’s hard to integrate yourself into Norwegian society,” said Morrish. “You have to do everything they do if you want to get accepted — and that includes cross country skiing. Four days after I arrived last year, I was on the skis. It’s a religion there — if you don’t ski there’s something wrong with you.”
He’s proved a willing convert to the Norwegian faith and others have obviously appreciated how devout he’s become. In cross-country skiing, the waxing of the skis is as important to each athlete as the tuning of the engine is to a Formula One driver.
Rolf Haggstrom is one of the best in the game and he’s generously offered to be Morrish’s waxer in Torino. Haggstrom usually works for skiers who are expected to medal. That he would take time out to assist the Corkman is itself a graphic illustration of how positively others within the sport must view his contribution.
In a week when Ireland’s draw for the Euro 2008 World Cup was viewed by some as a financial bonanza first and a sporting opportunity second, and following umpteen headlines about how much every association is set to reap from opening Croke Park to soccer and rugby, Morrish reminds us sport need not be all about money.
He recently received a check for