Sport Hurling

Sunday 25 February 2018

Aid fiasco runs true to form

Eamonn Sweeney

In this week's super soaraway Hold the Back Page: How will the Irish rugby team fare in the World Cup in New Zealand? Can Giovanni Trapattoni's men qualify for the European Championship finals? Can Tipperary hurlers and Cork footballers make it two-in-a-row?

I'm sensing some objections on the grounds that all these events were decided last year. Don't be so petty. I'm so busy conducting a review of how this column operates I haven't had time to think about the events of 2012. So we'll just go with last year's column. Why not? If it's good enough for the Sports Council, it's good enough for me.

Even by the bizarre standards of sports funding in this country, the Sports Council's announcement of this year's High Performance funding allocations was, to use a technical term, nuts. In the lead-up to the announcement, the Sports Council let it be known that the 2012 funding would be allocated according to the same criteria as the 2011 funding. The reason for this rather odd decision was apparently, according to Sports Council director of high performance Finbarr Kirwan, "not to impact on athletes' preparations in advance of the Games."

Unfortunately, Kirwan's explanation holds less water than a bucket with no bottom. Because the main result of the Sports Council's same-again-please strategy is that some of the biggest grants have gone to sportsmen who won't be doing any preparation at all in advance of the Games for the simple reason that they've already been ruled out of contention.

Mayo boxer Ray Moylette, for example, will get the top whack Podium award of €40,000 even though his exit from the National Championships means he won't be fighting in the final Olympic qualifying tournament in Trabzon in April. And Kenneth Egan, whose humiliation by Joe Ward in the National Championships showed that his elite days are behind him, will get Podium funding of €30,000, though his chances of making London are also non-existent. The only chance either fighter has of figuring on a Podium this year is if they make one themselves and stand up on it in the back garden.

Then there are three boxers from the St Michael's Athy club: Eric Donovan, John Joe Joyce and David Oliver Joyce, who'll be getting a total of €75,000 though they have also been ruled out of Olympic contention already after losing in the National Championships. The situation of these three fighters calls into question Kirwan's contention that the funding is based on, "a clear and unambiguous message of performance."

At last year's National Championships, Tallaght lightweight Michael McDonagh defeated both Donovan (€30,000) and David Oliver Joyce (€15,000) on his way to the national title. He was then ordered to box both men again before being allowed to fight in the European Championships. McDonagh duly beat them again. In this year's championships, he defeated David Oliver Joyce in the final. Donovan, meanwhile, had moved up to light-welterweight and exited the National Championships at the semi-final stage. Yet the Athy men have retained their funding while Michael McDonagh doesn't get a penny from the High Performance scheme.

Neither does Adam Nolan, who's won two national welterweight titles in a row. In this year's final, he defeated John Joe Joyce (€30,000). Double light-welterweight champion Ross Hickey also misses out on High Performance funding. Belfast flyweight Michael Conlan, who's already qualified for the Olympics and is a serious medal contender, gets just €20,000. Super-heavyweight Con Sheehan and heavyweight Tommy McCarthy who, like Nolan and Hickey and unlike Moylette, Egan and the three Athy boys, have still got a chance of making it to London are on €12,000 each. A message of performance? Really?

It's not in me to begrudge sportsmen money but the fact is that times are tight. Only 46 athletes from all sports earned Podium funding of €30,000-€40,000, the fact that this includes several boxers who won't have a shot at Olympic qualification because they're not even the best at their weight in Ireland is, in those circumstances, nothing less than a scandal. The losers are the boxers whose current form is being ignored for some mysterious reason.

The anomalies are not confined to boxing. The outstanding performance by an Irish athlete last year was Deirdre Ryan's high jump sixth place in the World Championships. Yet Ryan is adjudged to be unworthy of Podium funding and must make do with €20,000, which is the same level of funding given to world 1,500m finalist Ciarán ó Lionáird and European cross-country champion Fionnuala Britton.

In the case of Ryan, the Sports Council might defend themselves with reference to the carding system guidelines which say that Podium funding should be reserved for those who are in the world top three or have won medals in the World Championships or Olympics. But the fact is that, of the four athletes currently on this funding, only one, Olive Loughnane, has ever achieved such a feat. Robert Heffernan, David Gillick and even Derval O'Rourke haven't managed it.

Athletics Ireland high-performance director Kevin Ankrom says that "even though some of them wouldn't have strictly hit that criteria . . . it's about the intent, the potential, the capability to be in that position." Fair enough. Her past performances have shown that it's worth taking a punt on O'Rourke. But what about the inclusion of Gillick vis-a-vis the exclusion of Ryan? Gillick wasn't even the number one 400m runner in Ireland last year and hasn't shown world-class form for a couple of years now. I don't think anyone considers him a possible Olympic medallist. Ryan, and for that matter ó Lionáird, are far more likely contenders.

Perhaps these things don't matter very much to the Sports Council people who disburse funding according to out-of-date criteria. But the difference between €40,000 and €20,000 has a big impact on full-time athletes. ó Lionáird's struggles with funding have been such that he's been appealing to fans for financial help on his blog. The €30,000 thrown at Kenneth Egan would have been a great help to the man who's giving Irish middle-distance running its pride back.

Swimmer Melanie Nocher is someone else who's been unfairly treated. Despite winning a bronze medal at last year's European Championships, she remains stuck on a €12,000 grant, even though the Sports Council's own guidelines say that a European medallist should receive at least €20,000.

At the announcement of this latest fiasco, Sports Council chairman Kieran Mulvey boasted: "I made a commitment in December 2010 that there would be no reduction in high-performance funding in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. The promise has been honoured and the Council is providing a very significant investment package for our top athletes."

It would be more in Mulvey's line to examine the quality of the funding rather than its quantity. Ankrom's defence of the system -- "In previous years, if you didn't do your job the way the criteria is set up, then maybe we'd have had that conversation but I would say that 99 per cent of our athletes that have been there and done that over the last few years will continue to get what they need. Maybe not what they want but what they need. If this was your money would you invest in X, Y or Z? In some cases maybe not, that point of view always changes but we're always trying to maximise the return on our investment" -- brings two words to mind: Vicky and Pollard.

Finbarr Kirwan has raised the spectre of funding cuts over the next few years. In which case it beggars belief that this year's money was given out in such a haphazard fashion. You'd wonder if Sports Minister Leo Varadkar thinks these allocations, and the Sports Council's decision to ignore current form, are acceptable. If he does, he's a fool. And if he doesn't, he should do something about it. Because right now the Sports Council are robbing Deirdre and Michael to pay David and Kenneth.

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