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Thursday 28 August 2014

Tightening of belt to bring hard decisions

John Greene

Published 18/11/2012 | 17:00

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When the Irish Sports Council's funding for 2012 was cut by five per cent in last year's Budget, it was decided that, because this was an Olympic year, direct high-performance funding to athletes would not be cut.

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The council's budget for the year was €44.5m, of which €10.5m went to high performance. The cuts were spread out over the rest of the council's portfolio, with the GAA, FAI and IRFU taking the largest hit in the form of a 10 per cent reduction. Other cuts of five and two-and-a-half per cent were applied to the rest of the national governing bodies, and the sports partnerships were also cut.

The sports council will be cut at least another five per cent in next month's Budget and this time high-performance funding will not be protected, so savings of €500,000, or maybe more, will have to be found. This will not be easy, particularly as Ireland's performance at the Paralympics means 13 athletes now qualify for the top grant of €40,000, an increase from six this year.

Other athletes – the likes of promising 800m runner Mark English (pictured) and canoeist Hannah Craig – will also expect funding in 2013. Sports like boxing will expect its high level of funding – in the region of €500,000 this year – to be maintained given the results it has produced. All of which means tough decisions will have to be made. And all of which gives an added dimension to the publication on Friday of the sports council's new approach to funding elite athletes.

The first thing that has to be said is that there are flaws in the current high-performance grants system which needed to be addressed, and these are pinpointed in this review. For instance, the scheme is inflexible. There are three categories – podium, world class and international – with set levels of funding (€40,000, €20,000 and €12,000).

There is also a view that the grants have come to be seen as an entitlement rather than an investment, and that the nature of the scheme forces some athletes to concentrate more on maintaining their level of funding than improving their performances.

According to the report, there are instances where the scheme can be, and has been, used to support athletes who are deemed unlikely to progress any further along the road to an Olympic or Paralympic podium position but for whom the funding has become a way of life.

Addressing these weaknesses is central to this review and will see the introduction of a more flexible system, and a move away from the three categories. Athletes will be expected to show progress. There is general agreement that the criteria for the scheme were too broad. Instead, the belief is that it must be based on progress. "It is generally considered to be vital that the scheme (and past personal accomplishment) is not a passport to future payment but is wholly geared to attaining future goals."

The shift in emphasis – from one of entitlement to one of investment – also suggests a tougher line will indeed be drawn in future in assessing athletes for grants. There is a perception that this hasn't always been the case. In the UK, we have already seen in the wake of a hugely successful medal return in London that there is a ruthless side to this business too.

There is no indication what the new payment structure will be, although there is a broad hint that it will be lowered. Aside from the fact that there will be continued reductions in government funding, the review notes that grants in Ireland are comparatively higher than the UK and that the grants also compare favourably to recent CSO household income studies.

Naturally, these are the headline items but the entire review is really underpinned by the issue of governance in Irish sport.

This has traditionally been a critical downfall. It is an area that is improving all the time but it has a long way still to go. It is here too where this new policy will face its greatest challenge because the NGBs will take over responsibility for the funding of their athletes while the sports council's role will be to monitor and evaluate the process.

In order for NGBs to assume this responsibility, however, they must show they are 'fit for purpose'. This means, among other things, that they must have a credible high-performance director and plan, a properly functioning executive and board and good relationships with their elite athletes. As things stand, you could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of NGBs ready to assume that responsibility. Boxing and swimming might be two, although the relationship between the Irish Amateur Boxing Association and the sports council remains tense – not an ideal starting point.

Of the 26 sports funded by the scheme, five – archery, fencing, table tennis, taekwondo and gymnastics – have already been told their athletes will not receive direct funding next year because their ruling body does not have a supported performance plan in place. This affects the likes of Kieran Behan, who must now hope that his association can find money from its core grant to fund him.

Of course, governance is an area where the sports council itself must also improve, and lead in a much more visible way than it currently does.

Implementation will be phased, beginning in earnest towards the end of next year, meaning the status quo will largely apply in 2013, albeit with less money. Some elements, such as the abolition of direct bonuses to athletes (known as Performance Incentive Payments) and the removal of teams and pro-Tour team cyclists from the scheme, will be introduced immediately.

There is a lot to digest in this plan, and with Olympic and Paralympic reviews due in early January, a lot more changes to come.

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