Suddenly, a voice of clear reason in our theatre of Olympic dreams
And it comes from Martin Cullen. Brendan O'Connor was impressed when he interviewed the Sports Minister in a Government which is finally waking up
Published 31/08/2008 | 00:00
IT'S a bit like one of those unlikely scenes from ER. They've all given someone up for dead. "He's been gone for four hours, Kovac. Let it go." And, suddenly, a pulse. It's almost exhilarating. Having figured that this Government had drowned, there was a sign of life a few weeks ago when Batt O'Keeffe came out bravely on the issue of college fees. Since then there have been a few more splutters of water, like Mary Hanafin taking a firm line on single parents. But last week it appeared they were fully back to life again, and even thinking of going back in for a swim. Dick Roche, and even Cowen, were telling it like it is about Lisbon. And then, most hearteningly, Martin Cullen decided to tell us a few home truths about our great sporting nation.
The fact that Cullen's observations about what he calls the "ruthlessness" that we need in order to do well in the Olympics were greeted with a few raised eyebrows demonstrated again that vaguely lefty thinking is still the norm in this essentially right-wing, free market democracy. The fact that Cullen was also prepared to say the vaguely politically incorrect truth that is staring all of us in the face -- that white men can't jump, or run at least -- was also heartening. So unused are we to politicians being real and telling it like it is that this dose of honesty and reality was mildly thrilling.
Cullen's big idea seems to be essentially to bring to bear strategy guru Michael Porter's notions of competitive advantage of nations. In the business world, Porter's strategic blueprint is a standard framework for excellence and productivity. At its most basic level, it suggests that countries pick specific industries in which they have a capacity to create a sustainable competitive advantage. So you look at your natural endowments as a nation, and various other conditions, and you see what you can be better at -- and stay better at-- than other guys.
And Cullen wants to apply this to sport. Forget the stuff we haven't a hope of, focus on stuff we can win. In other words, as he put it to me himself, "We need to look at the market. We need to say, 'Where's our market? Where am I going to score?'"
If Cullen rattled a few cages with his observations about Irish sport last week, it sounds, from talking to him, as if he's going to rattle a few more before he's finished. Because part of achieving competitive advantage is not just picking something you're good at and that you have an aptitude for and a tradition of. Part of it is innovating and putting in place conditions that allow you to compete better abroad -- chief among them being a competitive and demanding environment in your domestic market.
So Cullen is not just talking about the Government getting ruthless about excellence in sport. He wants to see that same ruthlessness and dedication from our athletes -- and, as far as he's concerned, that's not the case right now with many of them. He doesn't want to point fingers, but he says, "In general, there were two types of people out at the Olympics -- those that were glad to be there, and then serious athletes. Right from the beginning you could see there was something different about the boxers -- a different focus, a different attitude. They knew what they were there for and they'd rather die than let anything get in their way. Whereas with some of the others it's just, 'We're delighted to be here.'"
He also wants to see an end to the BS that goes on within and between our sporting organisations. "The infighting and the lack of professionalism among the sporting bodies needs to be sorted out," he says. "We have two levels of it -- the fighting within the bodies, and the fighting between the various bodies. It's like dragging anchors, and we've been dragging anchors for three Olympics now."
So, as you can see, Cullen means business. He is aware of the kind of boost that sporting success can bring to a country, the feel-good factor and the trickle-down health and fitness benefits it brings to young people, and he thinks it's too important not to take seriously. And, clearly, if that means a few noses out of joint, Cullen is brave enough to live with that too.
So what sports should we be targeting?
"There are a couple of obvious ones," he says. "Cycling is one we have a tradition of, and it's a realistic target for us. Look at the countries who are winning in the cycling. They are white European countries. It is nothing we couldn't do. But, again, you need to be ruthless.
"I was talking to Sean Kelly because, apart from the so-called experts, it's the guys on the ground you really need to be talking to. He says there at least four really good young guys that we could target with a good four-year programme. But you need their commitment too. You need the athletes to be ruthless as well.
"As one guy on the ground was saying to me, 'You can train them five days a week, but that's no good if they're going on the piss at the weekend.' The dedication is not there. I was amazed when John Treacy told me that he would have been training twice as hard in his day for the Olympics as the athletes are now."
Cullen admits we need a velodrome -- and plans are afoot to build one. More importantly, he says, we need to get the Irish guys the back-up they need to be training and racing in more competitive environments abroad: "A bunch of guys racing each other around a velodrome in Ireland is no good.
"The trick is, you get the young kids in -- from seven, eight, nine, up -- and you start working with them. Everyone thinks the Brits started winning all the cycling medals overnight -- but in fact it is since they won a gold 12 years ago that they've been building the programme, and it's taken it 12 years to come to fruition."
In the meantime, he says, we need to aim for London with some specific athletes. Each discipline needs to pick three or four athletes who are worth targeting -- and if they don't have three or four good people, they don't have them, and they shouldn't waste time and money. But, again, he says, you need guys with the mentality of a Kenny Egan. Guys who are prepared to put in an enormous
amount of self-sacrifice for four years. And perhaps if the Govern-ment puts in the resources, he says, then they will get the dedication back from the athletes.
He also thinks we can focus on track and field. "Obviously, unless you're black and African you're not going to do well in sprint or middle distance," he says. "We'll get the odd one coming through, like a Sonia or an Eamonn Coghlan, but we'll deal with them as they come. But the likes of the javelin, the discus, the pole vaulting, these are the ones being won by white Europeans. Physically and mentally we're suited to them, and it's easy to see how we could do well here."
Cullen recognises clearly that this whole revolution is contingent on him getting resources, and he is prepared for that battle, too, while cautioning against being too unrealistic. He is conscious of how much the Aussies and the Brits say each of their medals cost them this year, but you suspect he thinks they would be cheap at the price in terms of the health and feel-good factor of the nation.
He describes our failure to build the Bertie Bowl as "the greatest mistake we ever made -- the catalyst to a campus that would have been the best in the world". But he says that the aquatic facilities in Abbotstown are among the best in the world, and that he plans to move the running track into phase one of the Abbotstown development so that we will have it as a facility for 2012. Ultimately, he says, he will create at Abbotstown a world-class centre of excellence for sport.
Apparently the Australians have already looked at Abbotstown with a view to using it to acclimatise and train their divers and swimmers in the run-up to London. Cullen concedes that, unfortunately, we will probably not have many other facilities on-stream in time for this kind of use, but he says we do need to look at this issue and see how we can capitalise on the London Olympics.
There have been mutterings, too, about just one sporting body -- Sport Ireland -- which would look after Abbotstown and the funding of high-performance sports in this country, but Cullen does not comment on that. What seems certain is that he is determined to take some of the "well- meaning people" out of sports in Ireland and replace them with more ruthless, focused, market- and medal-driven people.
It is exhilarating to see a man on a mission, fired up. It is even more exhilarating when this man is a politician, when he is seeing a bigger picture when he might not even be around to reap the political benefits.
And you know what? It sounds like the arts could be next. Cullen -- Minster for Arts, Sports and Tourism -- rightly sees them as being as key as sport to the national wellbeing, and he believes the same rules of competitive advantage can apply. "Again, we need to get rid of the scattergun approach and pick specific artists as against funding stuff that is well meaning but is really going nowhere."
Whatever about putting sporting noses out of joint, it's going to be some crack to see Cullen tackle the cosy Government-funded arts scene.
An open letter to the Minister,