Thursday 22 March 2018

Athletes an easy target for Yates rant

John Greene

John Greene

If recent experience is anything to go by, there was probably never any chance that an Olympic Games could come and go without the words 'Ireland' and 'controversy' appearing in the same sentence. But who could have known it would all kick off so soon?

In the last few weeks boxing and athletics have been receiving a lot more attention than they are used to this far out from an Olympics. With boxing, the dispute over last weekend's box-offs has left a sour taste, and in athletics the rumbles over sending A standard qualifiers only have grown louder. Even last week a Facebook campaign to send B standard athletes to London was started up.

Irish sport of course is fond of its boardroom rows and stand-offs but in the middle of all the unrest you will always find the athletes, working away and trying to keep their distance from the posturing and power struggles of others.

The uncertainty surrounding the make-up of the Irish boxing team this close to the World Championships means preparations have not been ideal, while in athletics it would also help if the athletes had clearer signposts on the road to London.

As things stand, the official position of Athletics Ireland and the Olympic Council of Ireland is that only those athletes who achieve the A standard in their event will be selected for the Irish team. However, there is strong speculation that the OCI will consider selecting younger athletes who achieve the B standard and whose career is seen to be on upward curve.

This would make a lot of sense -- especially in terms of thinking ahead to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 -- but sending out mixed signals to the athletes can't be helpful. Surely no-one wants a repeat of the events of three years ago, and outlined in this paper a few weeks back by Thomas Chamney. He had only run the B standard, but was summoned back to Dublin on the eve of the National Championships and was then added to the Irish team for Beijing after winning the 800m.

The Irish showjumping team has yet to qualify and has one more opportunity, in Madrid next month at the European Championships. Having said that, it would be a major surprise if the team did not take one of the spots available given recent form which has seen them maintain a top-four place in the superleague going into next weekend's final round in Rotterdam.

Swimming is a lot more clearcut in that the competitors know what they must do, achieve the A standard. So far, Barry Murphy is the only Irish swimmer to qualify but the other hopefuls have until the end of May 2012 to make the time in their event.

Murphy, who must repeat the time before the cut-off to guarantee selection, was one of four guests to take part in a discussion on Newstalk's breakfast programme last Thursday about the Olympics -- the others were sailor Annalise Murphy, boxer Darren O'Neill and 400m runner David Gillick.

During the course of a run-of-the-mill outline of what it takes to qualify for the games, Yates became fixated on the cost of sport to the taxpayer.

Annalise Murphy, currently in the world top 10, told Yates it costs approximately €50,000 a year for her to compete, which she covers through a grant of €20,000, donations and help from her family. This drew a rant from the former government minister.

"Your particular sport, sailing, grand if your dad wants to spend 50 grand on you but why should the taxpayer be interested in this? I mean like there is no commercial sponsor obviously going to pay the cost of it, the taxpayer has to do it -- it's a minority sport, it doesn't have a big audience, we'll be interested for a day in the Olympics, it'll make a footnote on the 9 o'clock news and we wish you well but where's the value for the taxpayer when we don't have the money for schools and hospitals?"

Murphy and Gillick were his main targets, and they were unsettled by his aggressive approach as he queried their entitlement to funding.

Yates (pictured) has established a reputation as a good broadcaster since initially seeming an unlikely choice to host the flagship breakfast programme. He is not known for making too many errors of judgement, but this was clearly one.

Apart from the fact that asking athletes to justify their relatively small grants is, if truth be told, dodgy territory for a man who has been handsomely rewarded by the taxpayer down the years in terms of pay, pension and expenses, Yates should also know that bringing health and education up to make his point was a cheap shot.

The health budget this year is almost €13billion, the education budget is approximately €8bn. The spend on sport is a fraction of that, estimated this year at €117m, of which just €7.8m goes in direct grants to athletes.

Yates knows full well that the amount of money spent each year on health and education is far less of an issue than how it is spent. And while the same may well be true in sport, he should get department officials, representatives of the Irish Sports Council and the various governing bodies into studio if he wants to pursue that line.

It is they who make the key decisions about how to allocate government funding, and it is they who determine which athletes merit support. Athletes know they must then justify this support in terms of performance, a point made by Gillick on Thursday, or the funding will dry up.

The spend on sport has been steadily declining since the country first slipped into recession and this decline will continue for the foreseeable future. It is right then that questions need to be asked about how best to distribute money and how best the right balance between supporting elite participation and grassroots participation is struck.

And this is the kind of debate Yates could have kickstarted on his programme last week, instead of picking on easy targets.

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