Tuesday 21 May 2019

Athletics: Same old failings dragging us down

John Greene

Over the last few weeks a British sports and leisure consultancy firm has begun work on the Irish Sports Council's post-Olympic review.

The company, Knight Kavanagh and Page, will talk to athletes and officials across all the Olympic sports in compiling its report. Aside from assessing the performance of Irish athletes in London last summer, this survey of the national governing bodies will also review the performance plans of each association and how they measured up at the Games, as well as what level of support was in place for each plan. The Olympic Council of Ireland will also be taking part in the review. Despite their sometimes turbulent relationship in the past, the OCI and ISC are satisfied that they worked well together up to and during the Games and the view on both sides is that there is no reason this won't continue through to Rio de Janeiro.

The London 2012 review should be completed by the end of the year and its findings and recommendations will play a key part in forming high-performance strategies for Rio. In fact, along with the forthcoming overhaul of the grants scheme for elite athletes, it's likely to be a cornerstone of plans for the next three-and-a-half years.

In the aftermath of an Olympics there is little time to stand still. A lot of countries are already up and running -- UK Sport, in the happy position of knowing its funding levels for the next four years, has already started announcing grants for 2013. There has been some movement in Ireland too, with the sports council and several NGBs actively getting set for the next cycle. Still, the quicker the new carding scheme is in place, and the Olympic review is finalised, the better for all.

What a shame then that last week we got an untimely reminder that the propensity for own goals in Irish sport is still, sadly, alive and well.

The fact that both Gráinne Murphy, a hugely talented swimmer who should be reaching her prime in 2016, and Anne Keenan-Buckley, a very well thought of figure in Irish distance running, were both reported to be disillusioned with their governing body, and were both reported to have bemoaned communication breakdowns in their organisations, is a cause for concern. Murphy's clear dissatisfaction with Swim Ireland stems from the decision not to renew her coach Ronald Claes's contract and to effectively shut down its high-performance wing in UL, where Murphy has been based for the last six years.

Speaking on Newstalk's Off The Ball last week, Nick O'Hare made the point that swimmers come and go and that it's the system itself which is paramount. And it's true that Swim Ireland -- an organisation which has come a long way in recent years -- may well have what it feels are perfectly valid reasons for dispensing with Claes's services and relocating swimmers based in Limerick to Dublin.

The major fault in this episode is that Murphy (pictured), one of its brightest talents, does not appear to have been included in the decision-making process. Certainly the final decision on the matter rested with those who have been put in place to run swimming in Ireland, but Murphy's talent and dedication, not to mention her status in the sport, should mean she is entitled to be consulted on any planned changes which directly impact on her. If she wasn't, as has been reported, then that is a fundamental error, one which has left Swim Ireland with a serious difficulty on its hands as Murphy appears to have lost faith in it and is said to be seeking a move to a training base outside Ireland.

High performance is not just about facilities and expertise, it is about managing athletes, and helping to create an environment in which they can excel. Unhappy or disillusioned athletes cannot reach their peak.

Although no longer an athlete herself, Keenan-Buckley's predicament was similar to Murphy's. The cross-country team manager had become increasingly disillusioned with Athletics Ireland's high-performance unit. According to sources, she also felt she could no longer work with high-performance director Kevin Ankrom. The timing of her exit is embarrassing for AI, coming five weeks before the European Cross-Country Championships.

Again there appears to have been communication issues at the heart of this problem. In the Irish Daily Mail on Friday, Fionnuala Britton's coach Chris Jones said that he believes Ankrom is doing a good job, but he also noted: "It's five weeks before a major championships and at that time you should be checking on your athletes' preparations, talking to their coaches about what they need. Anne was the stop-gap between Athletics Ireland and Fionnuala and now she's gone."

After the Olympics the point has been impressed on Ankrom that he needs to improve his communication skills. It had been a common complaint among athletes that this had been a major failing but this latest debacle suggests there is still a way to go.

It is very frustrating that old failings are still coming back to haunt Irish sport. There are some good people, with good ideas, working to make sure that at elite level Ireland can compete internationally when major championships come around. And still there are flaws, and still in so many areas there is an unwillingness or an inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The events of the past week should be given some consideration when Knight Kavanagh and Page are completing their review.

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