Thursday 23 May 2019

Athletics Congress brews up new storm

John Greene

John Foley came in to Athletics Ireland at a turbulent time. The association was broke, and morale among members was at an all-time low.

His predecessor in the chief executive's role, Mary Coghlan, had been sacked in disgraceful circumstances at the behest of the Irish Sports Council, which ultimately led to a damaging and hugely expensive High Court action, and vindication for the former CEO by way of a financial settlement.

Foley was initially brought in as an interim replacement for Coghlan in September 2009. His reputation in business and his background in athletics gave him a certain standing and he was confirmed as permanent CEO in December 2009, although eyebrows were raised that this was all done without an interview process -- a strange course of action for AI to take given its role in the Coghlan case.

A terrible year for athletics in Ireland ended with the association recording a loss of nearly €400,000, accounted for almost entirely by legal fees. Then March 2010 brought that court case which further damaged AI's reputation.

That senior officials were feeling the strain was evident. The association's president Liam Hennessy almost came to tears during his address to a sometimes stormy Congress in Sligo a month later.

This, then, was the starting point for Foley as the head of what appeared to be a thoroughly dysfunctional organisation.

Two years on, the association is getting ready for its Congress in Cavan at the end of this month and it's unlikely there will be any tears this time. Things have definitely improved, which is not quite the same thing as saying all is well, but AI is certainly on a more assured footing now.

On the assumption that Foley's business acumen was central to his appointment, then this was a good call because AI's financial position has improved. For the second year running it has reported a modest surplus -- €33,778 in 2010, and €36,968 in 2011 -- but a surplus nonetheless, and although senior figures will privately say their situation is still parlous, Foley has overseen a significant turnaround, particularly given the losses on that court case and, more significantly, the estimated half-million loss on AI's Santry headquarters.

And financial projections for the next two years show AI continuing to solidify its fiscal base, through prudent management of resources, additional sponsorship and increased membership.

"It is important we understand that public funding will continue to be under pressure in the next three years," writes Foley (pictured) in his report to Congress, "and if we are to ensure that we are funded appropriately then we must generate more revenue through our own resources."

Key to this will be securing an €80,000 increase in sponsorship.

There is no doubt that this Congress will show the association in better light than the last gathering two years ago, even if there is still a lot of work to be done in other areas.

However, as is the nature of these things, there is a small storm brewing in the last few days around the country which has the potential to greatly unhinge proceedings in Cavan.

Two motions being proposed by the Ulster Council might appear harmless to most observers -- they are in fact anything but. Motion 16 simply states, 'delete item 80d'; Motion 17 states, 'delete item 31g'. If carried, AI's juvenile committee will be downgraded and its chairman will be removed from the board.

Although the motivation behind this move is unclear, it is known that since the motions were circulated to clubs in the last week, two counties in Ulster have withdrawn support for them while the country's third largest board, Meath, is also against them.

The Ulster Council have their supporters on the current board of AI and these motions are seen as a final attempt to downgrade juvenile athletics prior to the election of the new board. What's particularly curious, though, is that the 594 schools affiliated to the association will be left with board representation. The effect of this would seem to be to hand greater control of underage athletics to the schools at a time when one of the great fears around education cutbacks is that sport will suffer. There is also the argument that athletic programmes in schools are not as inclusive as in clubs -- something true of most sports in our second-level schools where the competitive element forces them down that path.

It is also a curiously divisive proposal given that just over 60 per cent of AI's 35,490 members are juveniles, generating in return valuable income for the association.

The juvenile committee is, naturally, vehemently opposed to this move and in the last few days members have been contacting counties to point out the pitfalls of these motions going through. If the campaign gains momentum this week, one possible outcome is that juvenile athletics could be stronger than ever with incoming chairman Jim Ryan from Mayo at the helm and possibly a future candidate for the presidency.

It's often the way -- at a time when some calm and a united front is needed, something like this comes along. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

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