Friday 24 November 2017

Another chance to learn and improve

John Greene

John Greene

THE pettiness of Irish sporting politics means we can't say with any degree of certainty that the coming weeks will be trouble-free, or that an Irish controversy won't blow up during London, or after it, but we can at least be a lot more hopeful.

We know things are a little different than before, even if we have already had some squabbles.

In the case of showjumping, and however much Denis Lynch may feel aggrieved at being removed from the team, it was a decision that was taken not just because of what happened in Aachen, but because of Ireland's recent past at the Olympics.

As much as federations and athletes are determined to be a success in their sports, the Olympic Council of Ireland has been very clear for the last four years that it wants no cock-ups. Yes, there is an irony in the case of showjumping that Cian O'Connor has benefited from Lynch's misfortune but his record for the last eight years is not tarnished in any way. Following what happened in Beijing, there was no chance that Lynch would be considered for selection after Aachen, given how close it was to the games.

The athletics row is a little different in that it was avoidable, the product of an error of judgement. Whatever about the merits of Catriona Cuddihy and Joanna Mills for the final spot on the women's relay team, the original decision was taken a few days too early and was then poorly communicated.

There is no doubt that both of these controversies will have frustrated the OCI and the sports council. In this Olympic cycle, almost €26m has been spent on high-performance programmes. In 2001, high-performance grants totalled €1.57m, this year that figure is a whopping €9.1m even in the face of austerity programmes.

The ISC points to some milestones along the way. In the last four years, some of these include the opening of the Irish Institute of Sport headquarters, the establishment of a high-performance committee, all-island planning, and the signing of an operational agreement with the Olympic Council of Ireland.

The marathon runners, the women's 4x400m relay team, trap shooter Derek Burnett, the swimmers, the sailors and -- most of all -- the boxers are all products of a system which has improved beyond recognition since Athens in 2004. Others, too, have benefited. The boast that this is the best prepared Irish team ever might be a bit overstated, a little too self-congratulatory, but we can at least say that we continue to make steady progress.

Good systems, of course, need good people and some sports still fall short in that regard. You wonder, too, do we still lack a clear vision of where we want to be as a sporting nation because there is still a headlong rush to the Olympic Games in the last year of the cycle.

Some athletes who make it to the elite level have become adept at fending for themselves. You think of Derval O'Rourke, for instance, and you think of someone who rarely seems to have relied on anyone other than herself and those immediately around her, principally her coaches, Seán and Terri Cahill. She has, though, had significant financial assistance from the State along the way.

You think of others like Hannah Craig, who was almost allowed to slip through the net. Then there are athletes like high jumper Deirdre Ryan, who has pretty much done it all on her own. As well as others like gymnast Kieran Behan, walker Colin Griffin, judo's Lisa Kearney and Natalya Coyle too, to a certain extent.

These athletes are reminders that high performance is not the be all and end all, that spreadsheets and pie charts do not tell the full story, because they cannot put a number on the human spirit.

They are a reminder that we are still learning, still looking to come to grips with the concept of high performance and still trying to make sure that talent is identified and properly nurtured.

In the meantime, the next few weeks will be another part of the learning curve for Irish sport, and hopefully it will be another step forward.

Sunday Indo Sport

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