Thursday 21 November 2019

Sports funding must back winners

Even with two days' events left, London 2012 is already shaping up to be Ireland's most successful Olympics for a generation.

Led by the incomparable Katie Taylor, Ireland's Olympians have lifted the national mood at a time of economic gloom. Well done to them all.

Our success at London 2012 inevitably raises the question of government funding for sport.

In his 'Prime Time' interview on Thursday night, Sports Minister Leo Varadkar implicitly acknowledged that the sport budget will face cutbacks when the planning for Ireland's preparations for the next Olympics, which take place in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, begins next month.

While the threat of cutbacks will inevitably arouse protests from those affected, athletes and sporting bodies cannot ignore our grim financial situation. Commitments which were seen as affordable after the Beijing games of 2008 may no longer be so.

In his interview, Mr Varadkar raised the possibility of increased sponsorship of sport.

This almost certainly means that junior health minister Roisin Shortall's plans to ban sports sponsorship by drinks companies are dead in the water.

That will not be the only change in the way in which sports organisations and individual sportspeople are funded. This year we sent 66 athletes to the London games.

Unfortunately, the majority of those who represented Ireland at London 2012 did so in disciplines where they were not even remotely competitive.

Instead, we witnessed the depressing sight of successive Irish contestants failing to even make it out of their heats.

In the midst of the euphoria generated by Katie Taylor's gold medal it is easy to forget that our medal hopes were concentrated on a handful of sports. Boxing, of course, equestrian, sailing, canoeing and rowing. Outside of these sports we were often, literally, not even at the races.

But this was not reflected in the composition of our Olympic team. Of the 66 athletes whom we sent to London, only 26, less than 40pc, came from sports in which we had a realistic prospect of a medal.

That is no longer good enough. Now that money is tight, the available resources must be concentrated on the sports where we have the best chance of success. Not surprisingly, these are most likely to be the sports of which we already have a heritage and possess certain competitive advantages.

Let us be blunt about this. The chances of our producing a sprinter to rival Usain Bolt or a swimmer to compete with Michael Phelps are extremely remote.

For Rio 2016 we must focus on a much smaller number of sports in which we at least have an outside chance of a medal. It is only by doing so that we can hope to repeat the success we have achieved in London 2012.

Irish Independent

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