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Athletics: Sky's the limit for cash-strapped stars

There is Martin Cullen and then there's Mary Cullen. Here is what Mary Cullen had to do to get €12,000 from the State last year.

She had, in her short career, to qualify for the finals of the European indoor championships at 3,000m and the world championships at 5,000m. She had to run the fastest 3,000m by any Irish woman ever, apart from Sonia O'Sullivan. She had to take 12 seconds off her best for that event and 18 seconds off her best for 10,000m. She had to be good enough to win the American Colleges 5,000m title and come third in the 10,000m. This year, she's broken Sonia's excellent indoor 3,000m record, helped no doubt by that munificent €12,000.

Here's what Martin Cullen had to do to cost the State €8,000 last week. "Oh God, I can't be bothered being driven from Waterford to Killarney in a Merc. I'll get a helicopter to fly me there."

Kelly Proper is from Waterford. On Friday, she produced an Irish record long jump of 6.59m to qualify for the final in the European Indoor Championships. Earlier this year, she beat the Olympic 400m champion Christine Uhuorogu over 200m in Belfast. She is one of the most promising Irish female athletes we have ever had. Last year, when she was just 19, she broke an Irish long jump record which had stood for 16 years and won three national senior titles. This cost the State €5,000 last year.

Martin Cullen is from Waterford. He walked over to a helicopter, got in and sat into his seat. This cost the State €8,000 last week. Mary Cullen and Kelly Proper should come in for an increase in funding under the Sports Council's carding scheme this year because they've begun 2009 in flying form. But perhaps they'll have to stay on the same level of funding. And if their performance had dropped, they'd lose money. There is a lot of talk about being tough with underachieving athletes.

And no one's been more full of this kind of chat than Martin Cullen. That's why it's slightly obscene to think of him running up an €8,000 bill to travel to some photo op. Because while €8,000 may mean very little to Martin Cullen, it can mean quite a lot to our sportsmen and women, some of whom will take a cut this year.

Coincidentally, €8,000 was the amount by which rower Sinead Jennings' grant was cut last year as it nosedived from €20,000 to €12,000. Jennings has been world class for some time now and she confirmed this with a silver medal in last year's world championships. But obviously the Sports Council thought long and hard before deciding that they just couldn't throw away €8,000 when it might do more good elsewhere. They have a tough job because the likes of Martin Cullen like to talk about value for money and belt tightening.

Belt tightening is something the Minister was probably thinking about last week. Because if he hadn't tightened his belt this column would probably be in mourning. I'd probably be writing a song called 'The Day That Sport Died', to the tune of American Pie. Thankfully, tragedy was averted. But while Martin is someone who enjoys literal belt-tightening, he's obviously not so keen on it in the figurative sense.

There is Martin Cullen and there is Bryan Cullen. Here's what Bryan Cullen has to do to get €2,400 from the State this year. He has to train and play to the highest inter-county standard, participate in a drug testing programme, fill in a training diary and promise to make himself available for work with youngsters while holding down a job as well. Then he has to listen to Martin Cullen suggesting that the GPA player grants might have to be cut because the Minister, "doesn't have infinite funds".

Here's what Martin Cullen had to do to cost the State €8,000 last week. Nothing. Just sit on his over-privileged arse and enjoy the view before the door fell off. Because, to be honest with you, being chauffeured around in a Merc isn't always enough. Sharing the road with the plebs means you might as well be on a bus or a train or something. Sometimes only the sky will do.

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Eight grand probably seems like chicken feed to a man of the world like Martin Cullen. But the problem is that his department is responsible for funding people to whom this money makes a huge difference.

There's Mary Cullen. And Bryan Cullen. And Sinead Jennings. And Kelly Proper. Talented, dedicated youngsters who make me feel proud when I see them in action because they represent the very best in our society.

And there's Martin Cullen and the likes of Martin Cullen. And, in fairness to the former Area Sales Manager for Dillon and Co Wine and Spirit Merchants, he's not the worst minister in the government. He just happens to be the one relevant to this column. In fact, compared to some of his colleagues, he's a model citizen. In 2008, for example, he only once felt the need to use a helicopter. But there were 36 other times the whirlybirds had to be called into use. If there was a helicopter usage Olympics, the Minister for Sport wouldn't even make the final, he'd be choking in the dust of such frequent fliers as Willie O'Dea, who made nine and a half trips, one shared with runner-up Brian Cowen who managed eight and a half. Martin would have to go a bit to catch five-time flier Dermot Ahern or other multiple users such as Batt O'Keeffe and the two Marys, Harney and Coughlan.

Maybe his Waterford-Killarney foray is understandable enough in a milieu where Brian Cowen thought the journey from St Pat's Drumcondra to the Ritz Carlton Powerscourt to the Phoenix Park was one which needed to be made by air. Or where Noel Dempsey used a helicopter to go from Trim GAA club to Foynes GAA club and back to Trim GAA club. Poor old Chopper Cullen doesn't deserve all the blame.

This stuff matters because it's hard to fight sport's corner in a time of recession. Those helicopters are paid for out of the Department of Defence budget but it's all out of the same kitty in the end.

Because, faithful reader, when I think of the athletes biting their nails this week in case a loss of form or a struggle with injury has resulted in their funding being cut and then I think of the insouciance with which a minister who feels free to lecture the Sports Council on getting value for money orders up a helicopter and I think of how these born-again apostles of fiscal rectitude will tell you that we're all in it together before they jet expensively to their five-star hotels for the annual St Patrick's junket, I can only come to one conclusion. They think you're a bollocks.

And if you tolerate this, your children will be next.


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