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Tuesday 21 November 2017

He has qualified for the Olympics but, with 10 weeks to go, our best gymnast is working on a London building site

Kieran Behan's story of resilience encapsulates the Olympic spirit. The Irish gymnast has now qualified for a second Olympics, but as our reporter discovered, a lack of funds threatens the fairy-tale ending

Hard graft: Kieran Behan and his dad Phil at the builders' yard in London.
Hard graft: Kieran Behan and his dad Phil at the builders' yard in London.

Graham Clifford

Nimbly Kieran Behan balances on a beam before placing one foot in front of the other. He moves forward gracefully before the big dismount. His booted feet land in unison.

But Ireland's most celebrated gymnast ever is not in a gym preparing for this summer's Olympic Games in Rio... he's on a building site in Croydon.

Irish gymnast Kieran Behan in Dublin at the recent announcement of his BT sponsorship deal renewal
Irish gymnast Kieran Behan in Dublin at the recent announcement of his BT sponsorship deal renewal
Ireland's Kieran Behan competes on the rings during the Artistic Gymnastics Men's Team Final at the 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan
Kieran competing in the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, at the weekend

"It's really no way to prepare for an Olympic Games but I have to survive and working with my dad allows me to do that… just about," Kieran, who has become the poster boy for Irish Gymnastics, tells Review.

In the run up to the Olympics, his second, the 27-year-old floor specialist must juggle his work on the construction site with his training and his second job as a gymnastics coach to children.

He secured a silver medal for Ireland at last month's Olympic test event in Rio where he qualified for the Games with his floor exercise. And in Baku last June he finished fourth on the floor in the European Games, just missing out on a medal and making him the highest placed member of the Irish team apart from our boxers.

But medals and sensational results aren't being converted into pounds and pence.

Struggle: Kieran Behan reacts after falling from the vault at the men's gymnastics qualification during the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Struggle: Kieran Behan reacts after falling from the vault at the men's gymnastics qualification during the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Read more: The world beater who feared he'd never walk again

"I look at my peers and they're driving around in big cars and buying their homes. I have a poky moped and sometimes struggle to pay the rent. In many ways, my life seems to be on hold and it's difficult for my girlfriend and I. There are no holidays and few nights out, we can't afford it and there are so many sacrifices that have to be made. I work hard and wouldn't be where I am if I didn't but of course the lack of funding gets to you," he explains.

I first met Kieran in the Tolworth Gym in South London on a rainy afternoon in January 2012. At that stage he was virtually unknown in the land from where his parents hailed, Phil from Dublin and Bernie from Monaghan.

There on a gym mat he told me his remarkable story. Of how he was twice told as a youth that he'd never walk again and of months spent in wheelchairs. Of how, at the age of 10, a routine operation to remove a benign tumour from his left thigh turned into a nightmare following complications when a tourniquet wasn't removed, causing extensive nerve damage.

But miraculously, 15 months after the operation, a determined Kieran was back in the gym. His recovery stunned the medics.

However, a freak training accident resulted in brain damage soon after Kieran's 12th birthday when his head hit a bar. Again the doctors told his mother that recovery would be slow and that he wouldn't walk.

Kieran was having none of it and battled back for a second time.

A few minutes late for our meeting Kieran burst through the gym doors and explained that he was delayed because he'd run out of money for the Tube ticket, and had to use his gymnastics skills to jump a barrier.

So stretched was he financially that he'd have to borrow wrist supports from competitors if his own snapped. Cake sales and car washes were organised by friends and family so he could compete internationally.

And then the impossible happened a few days after we first met. The man who was told he'd be confined to a wheelchair became the first Irish gymnast to actually qualify for an Olympic Games.

And finally financial support followed. The Irish Sports Council gave €12,000 and the Olympic Council of Ireland €20,000.

But four years on where is the funding for Behan?

Paul McDermott, director of High Performance with the Irish Sports Council, tells Review: "Under our coding scheme, our competitors in gymnastics are not ranked highly enough to be classified as being in the high-performance category. We work with Gymnastics Ireland and invest in the sport rather than the individual athletes."

To support this point, the National Gymnastics Training Centre at the National Sports Campus is due to open at the end of this year.

"We are meeting with Gymnastics Ireland to see if we can find some resources to assist Kieran and Ellis O'Reilly (who became the first Irish female gymnast to qualify for an Olympic Games) but I can tell you the amounts will not be earth-shattering," adds McDermott.

While the Olympics Council of Ireland (OCI) explains: "The OCI provided Kieran with an individual grant to support his preparations for London 2012 as a result of his late qualification. At the time, Gymnastics Ireland were not part of the Irish Sports Council's High Performance programme. Gymnastics Ireland was made part of the programme in 2014 and received financial support from this point forward."

"I get £300 (€380) a month from Gymnastics Ireland," Kieran tells me. "It doesn't go far in London. For a professional athlete, that amount wouldn't even cover the cost of food. I appreciate they are helping me with limited resources but on a day-to-day basis, it's very difficult."

A statement from Gymnastic Ireland said: "(We have) invested considerable resources and finance in the support of our qualification route since 2012. This includes...staffing support, financing transport, accommodation and subsistence for all competitions and training camps (and) direct support for both gymnasts to assist them in gaining qualification.

"These costs (are) met by Gymnastics Ireland's internal finances due to the fact that we only gained full status as a High Performance sport with Sport Ireland last year. We are currently in discussions with Sport Ireland as to additional resources that may be available to assist (Kieran and Eilis) further in the final run up to the Games."

With less than three months to go, Kieran Behan can't receive assistance quickly enough.

"I am a British Telecom Ambassador and the fee I've received from them has kept me out of the red in recent years - especially after I had to have an operation and was laid up for a few months. But it's a modest fee. And I'm involved in an advertising campaign for Electric Ireland, but again the amounts we're talking about when compared to what I need to prepare for Rio are relatively small.

"I want to prepare properly but I can't do that unless I can pay my coaches, eat properly, train properly and not risk injury working in an unsuitable industry for an Olympic athlete," he adds.

"I want to do my best for myself and for Ireland and have unfinished business from London 2012. It would be heartbreaking not to be able to give it my best shot in Rio because of a lack of funding and exhaustion," explains Behan.

"Every athlete wants to fulfil their potential, to be the best they can be and to succeed at the biggest events. They don't come any bigger than the Olympic Games.

"When I qualified in 2012, the whole world seemed to want a piece of me. The media attention was frenzied as my story went around the world. Even in the Olympic Village there was no dodging it. I think in ways that impacted my performance at London 2012. I want to right that wrong in Rio and show the world what I can do. But without adequate funding, it's an uphill battle."

So while Kieran's competitors in the UK, USA, China, Russia and elsewhere are fine-tuning their skills ahead of Rio 2016, spending hours perfecting their floor routines and work on parallel bars... the leading Irish gymnast is focusing on brickwork, cement mixers and shovels.

Behan, who is competing in this weekend's National Artistic Championships at the University of Limerick Sports Arena, has overcome struggles all of his life - if he's to succeed in Rio this summer, he'll have to do so all over again.

Indo Review

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