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Can 'rich' sports learn from Gaelic games?

When most people think of the world's great stadia, they probably have in mind the Giants Stadium in New York, Ellis Park in Johannesburg or Wembley in London. These great theatres of entertainment are all home to professional and global sports such as American football, rugby union or soccer. Yet there is a stadium in Dublin, which is just as large and iconic but is home to purely amateur and far less well-known sports such as hurling and Gaelic football.

With a capacity of 82,000, Croke Park oozes sporting as well as political history and it's the pride and joy of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) - a volunteer organisation, which doesn't pay its top players anything. And unlike glamorous and better-funded professional sports, the GAA is also a model of financial prudence. Last year despite Ireland being in its worst recession ever, the GAA made a profit of $23m (£17m).

"We are conscious that we are an association built on a wholly voluntary movement," said Christy Cooney, president of the GAA. "So we look after it by managing our money in a careful way and by always planning for the future. Businesses and the GAA are a partnership because they, like us, are part of the local community. And sponsors also get to identify with a quality product."

But apart from the normal sponsorship deals, the GAA's coffers have also been swollen because Croke Park has played host since 2007 to all major Irish soccer and rugby international matches while their home - Lansdowne Road - is being redeveloped. That decision to allow non-Irish sports to be played in a GAA-owned stadium broke a century old rule and was highly politically charged - especially when England came to play.

To truly understand though how the GAA has survived and thrived as an amateur game, you need to come to rural Ireland. An hour's drive outside Dublin will bring you to the tiny village of Kiltegan. Population: 75, pubs: 2, sources of community cohesion: only one. As soon as they can walk, they are taught to play hurling or Gaelic football. Young or old, male or female, the local GAA club is quite simply the hub of all activity in villages like this throughout the country.

In tiny hamlets like Kiltegan, there's great pride in the facilities here and achievements of its unpaid local players. Walls are adorned with players who have reached county finals or even All-Ireland finals (the World Cup final for Gaelic clubs). They've even got a weights room, running track and a physiotherapist who rubs down bruised muscles. And his services- like all labour associated with the club - are unpaid. In the clubhouse, children run around high on sugar with biscuity mouths.

Proud mothers bustle about with steaming pots of tea and cuts of ham or cheese sandwiches, while dads talk earnestly about players ahead of the next big under-12s game against arch rivals Rathnew. "It's all about people putting their time and effort into the club for free," said Stephen Corrigan, a teacher who plays for Kiltegan senior Gaelic football squad.

"Whether that's in raffles or table quizzes, players as well as grandmothers regularly put their hands in their own pockets. Simply because the GAA is the only social network in a rural community - the bastion of rural life."

But how will Gaelic sports survive financially as Ireland struggles in major economic downturn? "I think the recession has brought us back down to earth," said Stephen Corrigan. "During the 'Celtic tiger' we forgot to be Irish. We got lost in the money." But the tip toeing towards professionalism is nonetheless underway. Gaelic sports are not for the faint-hearted and unpaid players get some awful injuries.

So some of the country's top sportsmen and women have formed a union to get a slice of the GAA cake. "I think players were frustrated at being asked to represent the GAA and not sharing in the commercial aspects of the game," according to Sean Potts from the Gaelic Players Association, which has recently signed an agreement with the GAA after years of hostility between the two groups.

That agreement provides for medical programmes for players who get injured as well as helping them get full academic qualifications during or after their playing career. It stops well short though of paying players.

"There had been talk that once you set off down the road to professionalism, like rugby did a few years ago, there's no turning back," said Sean Moran, GAA correspondent with the Irish Times. "So far the GAA has resisted that but who can say whether they can in the future."

The Gaelic Athletic Association - now in its 127th year - has seen wars of independence, civil strife, multiple recessions and a Celtic Tiger boom. Yet it has remained true to its amateur ethos in the face of growing professionalism. Instead of the GAA aping the big professional sports, perhaps the reverse may happen.

With dozens of top soccer clubs technically insolvent (if not already bust) and the perceived decadence of some of their star players, perhaps Formula 1, rugby or soccer might learn a thing or two from amateur sports.

Contributed by: Our Special Correspondent
City: Oxford 
Country: UK
Date: March 19, 2010