Tuesday 21 October 2014

Medals don't always determine a winner

Derval O'Rourke's stance on funding is a brave and risky one, writes Marie Crowe

Published 02/03/2014 | 02:30

Ireland's Derval O'Rourke

When Derval O'Rourke told the Sunday Independent recently she was coming back from injury to try and win a medal at this year's European championships in Zurich, few doubted her. Except, it seemed, her own association, Athletics Ireland.

Instead of being enthused and excited by the prospect of one of their top athletes going all out to go out with a bang, AI cut her grant by a whopping 70 per cent.

So even though O'Rourke has a European medal in the bag from last year's indoor championships – she was elevated from fourth to third when the Turkish athlete who won the race, Nevin Yanit, was hit with a doping ban – her funding was reduced from €40,000 to €12,000.

O'Rourke appealed the decision but was unsuccessful and in one swoop her plans for the upcoming season were thrown into disarray, and a rift formed between one of Ireland's greatest athletes and her Association.

It's a row that has been brewing since funding meetings began before Christmas, and although on several occasions social media activity indicated it may spill over, it was kept relatively low-key until last week.

In her excellent weekly column for the Irish Examiner, O'Rourke went public with her concerns, about her frustration with the system and with AI. It was a brave and risky thing to do as she is still first and foremost an athlete who needs her grant and the support services that go with it.

When things don't go her way she accepts the responsibility, it's a trait that is a prerequisite for being a success at individual sports. And with that awareness comes a self-assuredness that allows her to call things as she sees them and speak her mind.

In her column, O'Rourke accepted that she didn't perform well enough to meet the criteria for the top level of €40,000 but felt that she should have been considered for the next tier, €20,000, especially when a European Cross-Country medal garnered that amount and, in the past, so did a European indoor medal. O'Rourke put a value on her achievement and wasn't afraid to say what she believes that is.

Ultimately, O'Rourke expected that after more than a decade of consistent top-level performances, she had earned the right to get the backing of AI and its High Performance director Kevin Ankrom. Instead she is left thinking that the powers that be in her sport have little faith in her to come back and win another championship medal.

Ankrom and Athletics Ireland dispute O'Rourke's position. Ankrom says they are committed to supporting the sprint hurdler because they have faith in what she can do on the track. He said the payment of €8,000 for O'Rourke's Achilles surgery last year showed AI's support and he also outlined other costs that are covered for her, and other athletes, such as travel and competitions fees. Ankrom's argument is that HP support is a lot more than a direct payment to an athlete; O'Rourke believes that as a member of Irish teams this year those other inputs are a given so the €28,000 cut hits where it hurts most – her ability to prepare fully.

As for O'Rourke's European indoor medal not equating to a medal in the European Cross, Ankrom believes that there is a scale and an indoor medal ranks below European Cross.

"The Olympic Games are at the top, then the World Championships, the European Championships and it keeps going down," said Ankrom. "Athletes need as much money as they can get but there has to be guidelines on how that money is put out there."

Although this raises a lot of questions and allows for differences of opinion, the bottom line is that funding allocations are at the discretion of AI, with the backing of the Irish Sports Council.

"Athletes who have previously won medals at European indoors were funded at a higher rate because they were doing other things on the track, not just getting the medal," added Ankrom. "Derval had multiple performances, David

Gillick had multiple performances, it comes down to a combination of the medal and consistent performances."

O'Rourke also turned the spotlight on AI's high performance budget of €879,000 last week, calling for a full breakdown and questioning the estimated €200,000 salaries of those running the unit.

"The cost of three support staff (High Performance director, team co-ordinator and athlete services co-ordinator) far outweighs the 11 athletes' direct funding," said O'Rourke.

AI reacted swiftly to the criticism. They released a breakdown of the spending and were available to answer questions that arose from those revelations and O'Rourke's concerns. Ankrom was also forthcoming with his views on the controversy and seemed happy to deal with any questions which came his way.

He also defended his position and his salary. "I applied for a job like everyone would and I wouldn't go and talk about anyone else's salary," said Ankrom. "I'm totally accountable to the Irish Sports Council and the board of AI. My specific wage and also the wages of the staff is a requirement. There has to be a system in place and a director. Our collective salaries aren't taking away from the athletes, it's the opposite. If that system wasn't in place, the investment would be less."

With both sides having said their part and the outdoor season looming, the issues between the athlete and the Association will be parked for now. But ultimately will a medal in Zurich determine a winner?

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