Sunday 23 October 2016

State's callous attitude preventing society from reaping benefits of sport

As the scandalous Rio dust settles, it's an ideal time to debate the way we direct funding in this country

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

'The rush to kick Shane Ross around last week displayed our political system at its worst.' Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
'The rush to kick Shane Ross around last week displayed our political system at its worst.' Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

"I firmly believe that by 2016 Ireland can become the best small country in the world in which to do business, the best country to raise a family and the best country in which to grow old with dignity and respect." - Enda Kenny, February 2011

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The three lead items on RTÉ Radio One's three o'clock news bulletin last Thursday afternoon offered an insight into the Ireland of today - or perhaps of any day.

First was the story of Dubliner Trevor O'Neill, brutally murdered while on holiday in Majorca with his family in a case of mistaken identity in an ongoing feud between Irish crime gangs. Next was an update on Irish Olympic chief Pat Hickey, hospitalised and under police watch following an early morning arrest in a plush Rio de Janeiro hotel and accused of being involved in a multi-million euro ticket touting scam. And then was the latest on the resignation of Sinn Féin representative Daithí McKay after newspaper reports accused him of inappropriate contact with a witness in a public inquiry into a property deal.

Just another day . . .

When the dust settles on all that has happened, and indeed has yet to happen, in Rio de Janeiro, our relationship with sport as a nation must be examined like never before.

Read more: Olympic family looks away as Hickey walks into a perfect storm

From the moment, on the day before the opening ceremony of the XXXI Olympiad, journalist Daniel McConnell tweeted that an Irish boxer had failed a drugs test, our so-often dysfunctional relationship with this five-ring circus plunged to new depths. An Irish athlete in receipt of significant public funding had taken a banned substance and would soon be on his way home, expelled from the Irish team.

A day later, and an Irishman was arrested, accused of being a ticket tout. Within a week, another Irishman - who also happens to be one of the most influential sport administrators in the world - was in jail accused of being part of the same alleged ticket touting operation, and a boxing programme heralded as the world leader was on the ropes.

We had the unedifying sight of a sporting organisation in receipt of public money believing it was not answerable to the Minister for Sport, indeed believing that the minister should be "put back in his box".

We have a police investigation in Brazil, we have at least two inquiries here, we have a boxer awaiting a hearing with anti-doping officials, and we have several sports with question marks hanging over them having delivered performances which were a long way short of the standards expected of them.

We must remember that, despite admitting that he had taken a banned substance, Michael O'Reilly is adamant it was unintentional. Pat Hickey is unequivocal in denying any wrongdoing on his part. And the two companies at the centre of the ticket touting controversy -Pro10 and THG - also deny any wrongdoing and have pledged to co-operate fully with the inquiry. But no matter what way you look at it, this has been, as Rob Hartnett of put it, Irish sport's GUBU moment.

These last two weeks have been so calamitous that it is almost impossible to separate all that has happened. All the controversies and cock-ups can be rolled into one, all part of a culture in this country that just refuses to go away. We've been told that what has happened in Rio is a national embarrassment, but this is the country which harboured paedophiles, took children from their mothers, busted its banks and had to get a bailout after going broke. Why should sport be immune from the malaise?

After all, we have a fine tradition of using sport to buy votes. Those parts of the country which happened to have politicians with more influence than others could bank on huge wads of cash coming their way to build sports facilities. We are still paying for this abuse of privilege today. Had the money that was available in the 1990s and early noughties been used to build a nationwide network of public sporting and recreation facilities, how much better off would we be as a society today? Had we followed that up with a strategy of investing in resources and people to make sure that as many as possible availed of these facilities, would we be facing into an obesity crisis that so fundamentally threatens the health of our nation?

The State's attitude to sport has been callous and opportunistic. Even now, and even though Irish sport is underpinned by a new, talented generation of intelligent, motivated and driven experts, the broader response of policy makers continues to frustrate progress. Watching politicians and journalists using the events of the last two weeks to score points and settle old scores hammered this basic truth home again.

The idea that sport, and sporting success, is centrally important to society is well established as a soundbite. But what does it actually mean? And do we really get it? The most important question we must now ask in the wake of Rio is: Why do we fund sport?

Sport does not mean the Olympics. Or the Euros. Or the GAA. Or Croke Park. Or the Aviva. Or elite athletes. Or park runs. Or triathlons. Or Rugby World Cups. It is all those things, at all levels, and much more. And yet we have repeatedly shown that we do not grasp the fundamental importance of sport to the health and wellbeing of the nation.

On the surface, things may look like they have improved dramatically in recent years but you cannot afford to stand still. Yes, we have a national physical activity plan, and the system for distributing sports capital grants has improved, and other government departments - like Health and Education - are slowing starting to acknowledge that they have a role to play in promoting sport and physical activity as a lifestyle choice. Our facilities are improving and our high performance structures are improving, but behind the scenes, deep levels of frustration remain at the pace of change.

In the last 12 months, two internationally recognised high performance exponents - Billy Walsh and Gary Keegan - have chosen to walk away from the Irish system. The obesity crisis is worsening. There are still schools, towns and villages all over the country without proper access to sporting facilities. We have areas of deprivation and hardship in larger urban centres where children cannot access facilities.

These failures are not down to a lack of money. They are down to a lack of will.

The rush to kick Shane Ross around last week displayed our political system at its worst. Where were the new politics we were promised? If we are going to kick our sports minister around, then let's do it if he fails to advance the cause of sport and physical activity in Ireland during his term in office. Let's do it if he fails to deliver a strategy for all of sport, for the benefit of all citizens, that challenges the mindset of policy makers, that gets people active and also that delivers success - whatever our definition of success might be.

It is one thing getting to the bottom of all that has happened in the last two weeks and making sense of it, and at least in the last few days there has been a change of pace which is showing a determination to get answers to the questions which abound.

But it is another thing entirely to really attempt to understand what the true value of sport is to society. Let's at least start the debate.

Indo Sport

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