New Zealand's sports minister came under fire in the wake of the London Olympics. The country had just matched its greatest ever medal haul from the Games when Murray McCully announced sports funding would be frozen for at least two years.
Making the announcement, McCully looked to soften the blow by promising that every effort would be made to secure an increase in funding for the two years leading up to the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"It would be ungrateful of me to ask for more right now but I anticipate that halfway through this Olympic build-up, when hopefully the brakes will come off the budget, there will be an opportunity to put a case for extra funding," he said.
He pointed to the recently opened national training centre, which had received significant government assistance, and to contributions of €4.5m towards a velodrome and high-performance centre for cycling, and of over €5m to an ocean sports centre.
When it comes to sporting performance on the international stage, Ireland – with a population of over six million on the island – is often compared to New Zealand, whose population is just over four million.
Domestically, New Zealand's sporting landscape is largely defined by rugby, just as Ireland's is by Gaelic football and hurling. But New Zealand has consistently outperformed Ireland on the international stage. The country's 13 medals in London equalled its previous best, at Seoul in 1988, but the five golds eclipsed the three won 24 years ago. In Olympic history, New Zealand has won 103 medals, Ireland has won 28 since going it alone at the 1924 Games in Paris.
It is interesting that McCully was almost apologetic for freezing sports funding for two years, especially compared to the coldness of the approach to cutting funding here. What you don't always hear, though, when comparisons are drawn between Ireland and New Zealand's medal hauls, is a comparison between respective spending levels.
In Beijing, Ireland won three medals, all in boxing, and New Zealand won nine medals, and in the review of the Games commissioned by the Irish Sports Council, it was noted that the €32m spent directly in high performance in Ireland over the four-year cycle compared with the €28.6m invested by New Zealand. The report noted that "the amount of finance within the system should no longer be considered a bar to Ireland achieving success at Olympic and Paralympic level".
The level at which New Zealand's annual spend on sport has been frozen is $NZ60m (€38m). This had been increased by 50 per cent in the build-up to London, up from €25m a year. In contrast, the Irish Sports Council's budget this year was €44.5m. Last year it was €47m, and next year it will be about €42m. New Zealand has been getting by on considerably less money, and doing just fine too.
Admittedly, this analogy of medals and cash is a crude one – and should not be the only means of measuring the merits of either system – but it still points to the fact that New Zealand appears to be getting more bang for its buck.
There tends to be an obsession in Ireland over the amount of money being spent on sport, and perhaps not enough debate on how it is spent. Perhaps that will change now that the Sports Council intends to transfer the function of awarding grants to elite athletes to the national governing bodies. The suspicion is, however, that this will be a lengthy process.
While some of the organisations are moving in the right direction, they still do not appear to be – to use the phrase in the new policy document – fit for purpose. So many of the Olympic sports have encountered difficulties in their high-performance set-up this year that you have to think transferring the grants function to them will be easier said than done. Athletics, equestrian, hockey, rowing, swimming – even boxing – have all had their troubles. And fencing, table tennis, taekwondo and gymnastics have been told they will not receive direct athlete funding next year because of their shortcomings.
High performance in Ireland is evolving, and improving, but ultimately any system is only as good as the people in it and that has been the problem. The principle behind the transfer of power is solid, because it forces NGBs to take greater responsibility for their actions. There is also the fact that the Sports Council's new role would allow it to step back from day-to-day involvement with the various high-performance units to spend more time analysing and assessing their performances. Again, this will be a difficult process for those who have become used to direct interaction with athletes. It is not unknown, for instance, for the Sports Council to visit an athlete's training camp – at home or abroad. If, ultimately, this proposed transfer is successful then it can only be good for Irish sport but expecting any major impact in time for Rio in four years is probably stretching it.
In the meantime, there are dates looming which are of great importance to athletes. This is the time when they need their high-performance directors to be on their game. The deadline for submitting plans for Rio to the council is December 21, followed by an opportunity to meet with the council in the new year to outline them.
Grants should be confirmed in early March, which is one of the downsides for most athletes because it means another four months of uncertainty. And uncertainty is bad for everybody.