Sunday 24 March 2019

John Greene: GPA should set example and play by same rules as everyone else

Former Limerick hurler Seamus Hickey. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Limerick hurler Seamus Hickey. Photo: Sportsfile

John Greene

The comedian Catherine Tate has a rich cast of characters. My favourite is Nan, the obnoxious grandmother who gives out about everybody. Her catchphrase, usually delivered about some well-meaning friend or neighbour, is: 'What a fucking liberty!'

Nan came to mind on Friday after the Gaelic Players Association threw their toys out of the pram over Sport Ireland's decision not to pay government grants due to players until they sign up fully to the anti-doping programme.

The GPA, as has been its modus operandi for years, went on the attack. The former Limerick hurler Seamus Hickey, who is now its CEO, wrote a column in the Irish Examiner on Friday in which he said that "Sport Ireland have no right to withhold these funds under existing rules".

He accused Sport Ireland of moving the goalposts, and said that the new conditions for payment had only been flagged "in recent weeks". Apparently, 'recent weeks' is actually mid-December, but that's just a small point.

The row centres over Sport Ireland's insistence that inter-county players provide an address to receive their grants. In the Irish Independent, Dr Una May, the head of Sport Ireland's anti-doping committee, said that this is standard practice for all athletes who receive State funding. She said it was a basic requirement in other sports because it helps build up a bank of information which can be used in the fight against doping in sport. "Intelligence in anti-doping covers a multitude," she said.

But the GPA is not impressed. "Don't forget," wrote Hickey, "inter-county players are amateur athletes who spend on average 40 hours a week on their inter-county commitments (and another 35 hours a week either working or studying, or often both) so any new requirements of them will need to be agreed in advance."

The players are in receipt of taxpayers' money. The amount due to them ranges from a low of €700 up to €1,700. The sums involved are irrelevant, though, because public money comes with terms and conditions. But the real point is that this is also about integrity in sport and this arrogance that prevails in the GAA, that doping is someone else's problem, is doing nobody and favours. Doping may not be rampant in football and hurling, but that's not the same as saying there is no doping in either game.

Inter-county footballers and hurlers portray themselves as elite athletes but sometimes seem oblivious to the responsibilities that come with that. They want the benefits, but the doping programme that all other athletes are subject seems to be a step too far. This latest tweak which Sport Ireland is seeking to introduce does not go as far as what is imposed on other sports. All that was sought for now from the GPA was a commitment to sign up for 2019. In other words, they were getting a free pass this year.

"It's never been our intention to make [home testing] a routine part of our programme," said Dr May. "But we have the right to test players in any sport, in any environment."

This also applies to athletes who don't receive funding.

On Twitter, Colin Griffin, an Olympian said: "Most athletes in Olympic sport may lead a professional lifestyle but very few are paid professionals. Many also combine, work, study & family and still get tested at home. Inconvenient but necessary for credibility of their performance & their sport."

Lizzie Lee, an Olympian, said: "I'm an amateur runner, working full time. I've had testers wake my smallies on a week/school night to take my blood in my kitchen. I'm ok with it, as it makes my performances believable and helps the sport as a whole."

Sonia O'Sullivan, another Olympian said: "I can't see what the problem is with getting tested at home, it's easier than having to go somewhere to be tested and it's not like they are turning up every day, once every few months at best."

The GPA insists it is passionate about clean sport but that Sport Ireland's actions are not justified. In reality, a footballer or hurler can reasonably expect that a tester will never darken their door, which makes the protestations even more risible.

As news broke of this impasse, it also emerged that the O'Donovan brothers, Paul and Gary, were having difficulties of their own - real difficulties. The rowers memorably won a silver medal at the Rio Olympics in the lightweight double sculls, but their dream of more glory in Tokyo in two years' time is being hampered by a funding shortage in the sport. Rowing has been punching above its weight for the last number of years, and it seems is now a victim of its own success.

The Southern Star reported that the brothers would have to "beg, borrow or steal" a boat to compete in a World Cup rowing event in Austria at the end of the month and, shockingly, that they would likely have to pay their own way too.

According to the paper, "A funding shortage means that Rowing Ireland is sending teams to two of the three World Rowing Cup regattas in the coming months." So, a team was sent to the first regatta in Belgrade this weekend and will also be sent to the third one in Lucerne next month.

"What can you do?" Gary O'Donovan said to journalist Kieran McCarthy. "If they [Rowing Ireland] don't have the money, they don't have the money. You can't just pay for stuff with air, you have to have money - and we just don't have it."

Imagine the outcry if, for example, Louth County Board announced this week that it couldn't afford to send a team to Ruislip next weekend for the football championship qualifier. The GPA's reticence looks sadly misplaced when you consider we have two world-class athletes at the top of their sport internationally thinking about having to pay their own way to a world cup event. What a liberty.

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