Getting things back on track
Athletics Ireland's chief executive, John Foley, tells John Greene the sport has a bright future here and the association's problems are behind it
John Greene: With the track opening in Athlone there's a bit of a buzz, and a bit of an impetus going into next weekend's European Indoor Championships.
John Foley: Absolutely, the track in Athlone has changed things quite considerably. We have 10 people now qualified for the European Indoors and there's another meet in Athlone [last night] where we will give people another opportunity of qualifying. I think the opportunity is there for us to win some medals. We have had some really great performances so far. We have Derval [O'Rourke] of course in the 60m hurdles, Ciarán ó Lionáird in the 1,500m, he ran 3.52 for the mile last week, Fionnuala [Britton] in the 3,000m and Brian Gregan in the 400m. Brian is one of the real contenders right now so we're very positive going into Gothenburg, which is great to be able to say.
John Greene: Talk to me about the impact of the new track.
John Foley: It really has created a huge buzz. We've had the Athletics Ireland games there and then the Nationals last weekend and it was quite extraordinary actually to see the atmosphere. The crowds were larger, the entries were bigger and the performances were really very positive so I think going forward we'll change how we run our season. It's yet to be decided but I think you'll find more of an appetite for Indoors come the start of January and whereas our cross-country season, and our inter-counties are in November, our inter-clubs in February and I think as an organisation we'll have to review that and determine how we cut off the cross-country season and when we start the indoor season to make sure there isn't conflict. But that's all positive because we now have a track where people can compete; we also have an opportunity of getting more and more international events. That's something we'd like to do, have people running in Athlone IT from abroad, competing against our own people here rather than our guys having to always go abroad to compete. In my three years in the organisation I have never seen such a buzz.
John Greene: The public is mostly interested in the elite end of any sport – where is Irish athletics at the moment internationally?
John Foley: I think we're doing well. I think people are always going to be looking at Olympic medals but if you look at the World Championships in 2011 we did well, we had Ciarán ó Lionáird in a final, Rob Heffernan walked very well; then in the Olympic games we had a fourth place. The perception of people would change dramatically if we had got a medal then, but Rob Heffernan had a fantastic walk. We do well internationally. I think what excites me is that now that we have a high-performance director [Kevin Ankrom] in place that the future is bright, especially when you have a very strong stable of young athletes. We are now really coming to a time where we have an opportunity of getting medals in the future. I am confident about the short-term. We work very closely with the Institute of Sport and the Sports Council and we now have close to 60 athletes attending the Institute on a regular basis for nutritional help, blood work, physiotherapy, massage work and so on. It's being done very professionally, whereas three years ago we had just a handful of people doing it. That will serve us well, and I think that's what a high-performance programme and a high-performance director brings to us as an organisation, that sense of professionalism. Our athletes are going to work with the professional bodies in the country to ensure that we are the best that we can be. That is hugely encouraging. I can see it myself, and I see younger athletes being very positive about our high-performance area.
John Greene: You mention the high-performance director . . . there have been some athletes openly critical of him, there have been others openly supportive of him. He's had some time to settle in now, but I think if I was to do a straw poll of athletes and coaches the one thing I would hear back is he has communication issues.
John Foley: I'm not going to personalise this. I'm the chief executive and therefore if there are issues with communication then ultimately I'm the one that has to change the perception that we have a problem. I think however it is fair to say that communication has been something which perhaps has not been our strongest suit . . .
John Greene: Would you see this as a problem with the whole association?
John Foley: No, it's not an association problem, definitely not. There are perceptions, and I think perceptions are sometimes slow to change. We're out there more, and I would argue the fact I'm meeting you for a full and frank discussion is a sign of that. We are communicating more and more with athletes. The high-performance director has also put a very robust plan in place which has been presented to the Sports Council and the Institute of Sport and it is being viewed very positively. We will roll that out to all our stakeholders over the next month or so – our own members, the media and so on – and we will go around the country to ensure we can communicate our message in a very positive way because there is a very positive message to be told in Athletics Ireland. Like any organisation, it's a dynamic situation and we know that changes are necessary and we will continue to make those changes.
John Greene: You are three years in the job. You came in at a very difficult time. There was a damaging court case, there was no high-performance director and there were other issues around governance and all that. How much better off are you now than three years ago?
John Foley: First of all, it is stable as an organisation. I work very closely with all the boards and committees. I think I have the confidence of these people. We have moved it along. We have taken membership from 26,000 in 2007 to 42,000 in 2012, which is a 71 per cent increase. And that is not only in juveniles, it's in senior and masters as well so we've actually done a good job in getting our membership up. In the first month of 2013 we reached more or less what we had [in members] for the whole of 2007. Of the 900 secondary schools in the country, we have approximately 700 of those competing now in cross-country and a lesser amount in track. So we're making an impact. And it is a very competitive world, we're competing against Gaelic games, soccer, rugby, cricket and everything else, we're vying for the same people. We are actually making inroads. We have also a concept called a mile challenge where people, whatever their weight or ability, actually can compete in a mile, walking or jogging. We have the fit for youth programme just started; we have a fit for life programme already, which is attracting more and more in a club environment but a non-competitive environment and fit for youth is about that as well, getting kids, outside of school, involved in our sport. Even though the elite part of what we do is the one where we get all the publicity, it is important to say that we have a twin objective in that participation is a huge part of what we do. That's one of the areas where the Sports Council and ourselves work hard together and part of our funding is geared to that, like women in sport and we've done a good job there to ensure that we get more people involved. We have entered the mass participation part of our sport. We manage the logistics – online entry and so on – for the Samsung Night Run; we're partners with the Rock n Roll half-marathon which is happening in August in Dublin; we're involved with the Run with Ray D'Arcy series, the remembrance run . . . these are all fee-earners for us. We also manage the logistics of Operation Transformation so we're working to take ownership of our sport, to ensure we can have a bigger influence in our sport. But also, and very unashamedly, it's very important that we find revenue earners. When I look back to 2008, an Olympic year, 65 per cent of our revenue came from the Sports Council. In 2012, that is now 49 per cent. Funding has reduced over the last few years but we have accelerated our own revenue-generating initiatives and that's the way it should be. And that's something I'm actually quite pleased with. That has been very Dublin-centric for the last three or four years but now we intend going outside Dublin to see can we take our involvement in mass participation to another level.
John Greene: What's your view on the new carding system? Do you think it's fair or is it setting targets that are too high?
John Foley: No, I think it's fair. Every organisation has an opportunity to fund athletes from their own resources. Let me give you an example of that and how it is of benefit to us: Traditionally cross-country has been very much part of our DNA and we've had great success in the past. Some of the cross-country participants wouldn't automatically qualify for carding but are part of the team so we put a fund together three years ago to help people who are outside carding and we built that up and we succeeded; and one of the signs was how well we did in the European Cross-Country. Not only did we win individual gold with Fionnuala but we won team gold as well. That was without a doubt one of the proudest days I've had in my life, being part of that . . . We can build on that.
John Greene: What expectations do you have for the World Championships?
John Foley: It's early days and a lot depends on injuries and so on but Rob Heffernan has the potential, Ciarán ó Lionáird of course, but you go to a World Championships and it is the pinnacle – it's the same athletes that compete in the Olympic games so reaching finals would be a big objective. It's not only about this year though, it's about the next number of years, creating an environment where we're in a position to be able to compete internationally in the biggest sport of all when it comes to the major games – 190 countries competing – and that we perform to our potential.
John Greene: One of the things that tends to cause controversy is the qualifying standards for major championships – has there been a bit of a softening on this? I was looking at the World Championship standards and there seems to be more room for discretion.
John Foley: No, there will always be room for discretion but I think setting the bar high proved to be a very positive thing for the Olympic games. We had 23 people who qualified. When you are sending people to a major games, I think it's important that we have people who will go and can actually compete at that level. I would be quite satisfied that the approach of the high-performance director, which is endorsed by the high-performance committee, is a positive thing.
John Greene: Is there enough being done to keep athletes in training at home?
John Foley: Our plan is to hire more professional coaches to help the people who are volunteer coaches. We have applications in now for the national endurance coach and we'll be interviewing for that soon and the calibre of applicant is just phenomenally high and that's very encouraging us. Our intention would be – based on funding – a sprints and hurdles coach, a throws coach, a walks coach. I went through the United States scholarship system 42 years ago. Some people do well in it, a significant majority don't really ever get to the level where they felt they were going to get there. Athletes are staying at home; the university system compared to my day has sports programmes. The American system may be suitable for some people but I think there will be a higher propensity to stay at home because athletes who are emerging will actually see that the people who are now doing well stayed. Okay, you can counter that with David McCarthy, who is doing well in Providence, and Ciarán ó Lionáird, doing well in the United States, but overall I think more and more people will stay here because the systems are here now. We have a high-performance system and a high-performance plan that will actually take them to the next step.