Saturday 20 January 2018

Athletics: This is the chance for a new beginning

Alan Ruddock

If you were a director of Athletics Ireland and had just been forced to settle an expensive legal case with your former chief executive, would you be more concerned about the media coverage of the case or the events that led up to it?

Would you want an urgent review of what happened, demand to know why your organisation was now faced with a massive legal bill and question the continuation in office of those who caused it? Or would you just mutter about inaccurate reporting, complain that the media had got the figures wrong and then try and work out how you can cut spending for the next few years without your members actually noticing?

The answer, sadly, is obvious: blame the messenger, skirt over the real issues and prepare those cutbacks.

Last week's board meeting of Athletics Ireland resulted in no action: there will be no review and no consequences for those directors, including Liam Hennessy, the president, and Patsy McGonagle, the director in charge of high performance, who contributed to such a disastrous outcome for the organisation they are meant to lead. Their refusal to engage in a proper examination of their own roles should be howled down at the organisation's annual congress next month.

Ordinary members have a right to know why more than €500,000 of their funds -- and probably as much as €700,000 when all the legal bills are totted up -- has been wasted on a legal action that would never have happened if the board had stood firm behind Mary Coghlan, its own chief executive. Instead, the board sacked her, bending to the will of Ossie Kilkenny and John Treacy, the chairman and chief executive of the Irish Sports Council, who wanted her out.

At least Athletics Ireland has a congress and has members who can ask questions, demand answers and vote out their board. The Irish Sports Council has no ordinary members and its governance rests solely in the hands of its board of directors. They meet this Tuesday to discuss the fallout from the Coghlan case but it will be a shock -- though a very refreshing one -- if the directors can summon the collective will to take decisive corrective action.

They too face a legal bill, but the damage to the ISC's credibility is far more serious than that. It is a new board, untainted by the events that caused the Coghlan case to reach the courts, but that is no guarantee of action.

Its cause is not helped by the uncertainty at the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, which could cease to exist on the day that the board meets and which will have a new boss if it survives. If the board does its duty, Kilkenny and Treacy will be left with no option but resignation. And if it cannot get rid of them, the new minister, whether senior or junior, will be left with a very simple way to make his or her mark.

The coincidence of the timing -- a board meeting and a cabinet reshuffle on the same day -- means Tuesday could mark a dramatic new beginning for Irish sport, and it could not come soon enough.

London's Olympics was meant to be a golden opportunity for Ireland's athletes to make their mark, but the chaos at AI and the ISC has thrown our preparations into disarray.

Just as damning is the failure of the ISC and the Olympic Council of Ireland to mount a credible joint campaign to persuade other countries to use Ireland as a training venue ahead of the Olympics -- a failure that has much to do with the ludicrously poisonous personal relationships at the top of both organisations. For the moment, our Olympic hopes rest with our boxers, and most particularly with Katie Taylor (pictured), who will feel ever increasing pressure as other sports fall by the wayside.

A new beginning would see new leadership in the ISC, a new minister in charge of sport, a genuine rapprochement between the ISC and the OCI and a coherent plan for London which gives all our athletes the chance to fulfil their potential. It would see the ISC stepping back from control, allowing sports organisations to run themselves without fear, while it concentrated on building participation in all sports. A new beginning would also see sweeping change at Athletics Ireland, change driven by its members and not by the whims of the ISC.

It could be a great week for Irish sport, or it could be the week when we realise that nothing has changed and nothing will change. It all starts with the ISC board: can it break with tradition and demand that actions have consequences, or will it follow the lead of Athletics Ireland by blaming the messengers and ignoring the problems?

Sunday Independent

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