Irish sport needs far more than tokenism
A T the Olympics in Beijing two years ago, Australia's team of 433 athletes brought home 46 medals -- 14 gold, 15 silver and 17 bronze. It was the country's best Olympic performance in over 30 years.
It achieved medal success at individual level across a broad range of disciplines, in the pool, on the water, on the bike, on horseback, on the track and in the field; and at team level in basketball, hockey, water polo and even softball.
At the same games, Ireland's team of 54 athletes returned home with the three boxing medals won by Kenny Egan, Darren Sutherland and Paddy Barnes.
By any yardstick, the performance of Australia at the games was exceptional. When the team returned home early on the morning of August 26, 2008, sports minister Kate Ellis was on the tarmac at Sydney Airport with prime minister Kevin Rudd to welcome them. "Every man, woman and child in this nation Australia is proud of each and every one of you, well done,'' said Rudd. "The preparations for London 2012 begin today and we the government and people of Australia are behind you every step of the way.''
Within two days, Ellis had announced the appointment of an independent and expert panel to carry out a comprehensive study into the future of sport in Australia. Work on that report got under way immediately, and its findings were published in November 2009.
The Crawford Report, as it became known, received a mixed reaction from the vested interests in Australian sport but it is a significant piece of work. It questioned many of the fundamental practices that had been in place and which had yielded success across several fields, and even though it came in the wake of the Beijing triumph, it took issue with the Australian Olympic Committee's stated aim to finish in the top five at the London games.
David Crawford, the businessman who headed the inquiry, said: "The panel does not believe that the medal count is an appropriate measure of Australian performance or that top five is a sensible target. The panel's judgement is that if another $100m per year is invested in sport, it would be better directed to other priorities."
By this Crawford meant directing it towards increasing participation at the grassroots. The more people who participate in sport, he argued, the better it is for society. The report kickstarted a debate on sports policy, and funding, in Australia, and earlier this year the government published a policy document on sport in which it took on board many of the recommendations.
Now contrast that with the Irish situation over the same period. Setting aside the interminable disputes, the lack of leadership at political level has been alarming. A month before the Australian government published the Crawford Report, Brian Cowen and John Gormley signed off on a renewed programme for government. In its 41 pages, four sentences are devoted exclusively to sport. There is a pledge to complete an audit of the country's facilities, a promise to 'capitalise on the proximity' of the London Olympics; a promise to build programmes 'aimed at increasing participation and removing barriers to sport' and, finally, a promise to 'continue to build the high-performance system'.
Almost 12 months on and these just look like words thrown at a page. Sport's inclusion in this programme reeks of tokenism. It is half-hearted, and typifies a clear lack of direction under successive sports ministers.
Labour's Mary Upton has been the first in the political classes to look to fill the void in clear thinking at government level by producing a new policy document on sport in Ireland. Fine Gael is understood to be finalising its blueprint.
Upton (pictured) has presented her policy in unambiguous fashion, offering it as a template on all aspects of the state's interaction with sport. It starts with the assertion that throwing money at sport is not always the answer to greater participation -- it is about spending smarter. This is hardly a revolutionary notion, but it's one seemingly alien to the governing parties.
Where state funding plays a large part in bankrolling sport, there is a fundamental tension between a desire for that money to be converted into sporting excellence -- the measure of which is success at major championships -- and the idea that public money should be used primarily for public good. Winning medals or titles, or whatever, is important, but is the success of a small number of top sportspeople a better return on state spending than a tangible improvement on participation numbers in the community, and the benefits that has for public health, well-being and social cohesion?
Two of the cornerstones of Upton's paper are that state funding should be used primarily to bolster participation and that funding of Irish sport should be refocused -- taken away from capital projects and moved towards employment, and the promotion of sport. We are still a far cry from the level of debate in Australia and elsewhere, but maybe it's a start.