Wednesday 17 January 2018

Bandwagon-hopping political classes are letting sport down

It’s hard to take politicians seriously when it comes to sport, although Michael D might be the exception that proves the rule
It’s hard to take politicians seriously when it comes to sport, although Michael D might be the exception that proves the rule

Ger Gilroy

It's hard to take Irish politicians seriously when it comes to sport. Michael D might be the exception that proves the rule, given he was previously the president of his local football club, Galway United, and is a die-hard League of Ireland fan. He has an opinion or two based on reality. Most of the rest of them, though, are so beaten down by the jackboot of clientelism, the hunt for free tickets and constant merry-go-round of funerals, wakes and committees to remember the time they loved sport and did it for fun.

There is no sense in Ireland of anyone working within politics seeing sport as something vibrant, delicate and desperately in need of help. To them sport has become just a vessel for another badly written press release lauding whichever constituent medals in tiddlywinks in Baku.

Unless of course there's a bandwagon that can safely be clambered aboard. Senator Kieran O'Donnell knows that concussion in rugby is a hot button topic and he wants compulsory headgear for all kids games, according to a statement last week. That's a winner, right? Trouble is, compulsory headgear doesn't work. Generally concussion is made worse by helmets or scrum-caps, that's what the latest science says. It's relatively easy to find this out but unlikely to gain you much media attention.

Perhaps the senator's heart is in the right place, and this might not have been a cynical ploy to use the concussions of a bunch of kids to his own political advantage.

It may just have been a busy parent worried about the state of the game that he played as a kid, groping in the dark for a solution to a problem way too big for him to fix.

The senator was talking because last week a schools rugby match between St Munchin's and Presentation Brothers College in Irish Independent Park was abandoned after three Munchin's players suffered concussions. The injuries required the removal of the three players by ambulance to hospital and took 54 minutes combined to deal with.

The referee wanted the game to continue but Munchin's decided that they'd had enough for one day. The Limerick Leader quoted their coach, Pat Cross: "We were very much taken aback and distressed by the fact that the referee requested us to return to the field and that the game would continue in five minutes and proceeded to start the game with no opposition on the field."

Think about this scenario for a moment. A team of kids, standing around freezing, waiting as two of their team-mates get treatment for a clash of heads, one of whom was knocked out cold. An ambulance arrives and ferries them away 20 minutes later, then the game restarts. Soon after, another child gets concussed, another team-mate down. They wait again in bitter cold for a second ambulance and this time a further half an hour later, down three players, the referee asks the team to play out the game, presumably as he is required to do by some archaic rulebook.

It's a Junior Cup game. Your coach decides you've had enough and you watch from the changing rooms as the referee and the other team retake the field on their own. There's a metaphor there if you look hard enough.

The Limerick Leader reported that these three players were joined by two serious injuries in another Junior Cup game suffered by players from St Clement's College. One was removed from the pitch on a spinal board while the other suffered a concussion. Five hospitalisations from two junior cup games in the space of a couple of days. 'Let's get the lads into headgear' isn't my first thought here.

It's hard not to be cynical when politicians get involved because they don't seem to be interested in the real stories. We have to ask ourselves why this game had to continue when one fifth of one team had been badly injured. Or how it is that spinal boards at an underage game isn't a massive story. The remarkable thing here is how unremarkable these stories have become.

My cynicism about the good senator is informed by the most recent interaction we had with politicians and sport, which was the shambolic performance of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport. There they were chatting amiably with the leaders of the big three sports under the grandiose title 'Sport in Ireland; Challenges, Strategies and Governance: FAI, GAA and IRFU'.

Our paid representatives, though, had no intention of holding our sports administrators to account, and it never struck them that they could articulate a vision for the future of sport on the island.

Why do we fund elite sport?, they didn't muse. Is it time to reimagine the pyramid that puts the Olympics at the pinnacle of public funding?, nobody asked. What does the taxpayer benefit from funding elite GAA players and why don't the GAA do it themselves?, no-one wondered. Are tax breaks for millionaire sports people really justified given the state of our health service? How do we move to a system where communities share their sports facilities and work together to promote health and lifelong participation as opposed to competing for the best young athletes? No-one cares enough about sport in our political class to ask these questions, let alone answer them.

Our politicians want medals and flags and anthems. The British model of investing millions to effectively buy medals at major championships results in some great PR shots, some slightly better written press releases and a bunch of very stressed athletes who rely on funding to compete. Some of them it seems have been taking shortcuts to make sure that funding continues. It's a story that will end the same way it did for the USSR and the GDR. It's a story as old as the Olympics.

In the meantime grassroots sport in the UK is under siege. Our model isn't a million miles different, it's just got way less funding. Be under no illusions though, it's monkey see, monkey do when it comes to politicians in Ireland funding sport.

Our sporting culture has become a perversion of the Olympic ideals. This general exhaustion with the administration of sports was one of the reasons it was hard this past week to get too excited about the Olympic Council of Ireland electing a new president. The Olympics has become a jamboree of corruption, ego and cheating - WWE only with slightly less scripting.

The offices of the OCI still had portraits of Michelle Smith on the wall recently, and who knows they may still have them up. Should any taxpayers' money really still be going to prepare a team for the Games? There must be some politicians ready to ask these questions and insist on answers. Otherwise this is all for nothing.

  • Ger Gilroy is a presenter on Newstalk's Off the Ball show.

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