Thursday 23 May 2019

Athletics: Turf wars do little to advance Irish sport

Eleven years ago, Jim McDaid, then the minister for sport in a still shiny Bertie Ahern government, introduced legislation to create the Irish Sports Council as a statutory body.

"Sport is an integral part of Irish society, with the ability to touch each and every one of us," he said. "It adds to the quality of life of all those involved in it -- participants, volunteers, spectators and supporters alike -- and constitutes a most unique and vibrant part of our national culture. The role of the new council will be to plan and support the future development of Irish sport in conjunction with the various sports organisations and thousands of volunteers who have been the lifeblood of sport in Ireland for generations."

McDaid's vision of what the ISC could become was echoed around the Dail (in large part because the opposition reckoned they had thought of it first). The ISC, with hefty doses of state funding, would transform our lives: children would participate in ever-increasing numbers and Olympic medals would grow on trees.

It was never going to be that easy, but McDaid and his optimistic colleagues in the Dail might have hoped that by 2009 Irish sport would, at the very least, have rid itself of turf wars and petty-minded politics and could concentrate instead on success, like Friday's comeback bronze medal for Derval O'Rourke at the European Indoor Championships.

But no. At the very top of Irish sport, political wars are waged with relentless enthusiasm. The regular spats between Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, and John Treacy, chief executive of the Sports Council, are well documented and show no sign of abating. (Treacy fires a volley at Hickey in today's interview with John O'Brien, and return fire can be expected shortly.)

Less well documented are the rows that do not involve Hickey and the OCI. At the moment, Treacy and the ISC are involved in a stand-off with Irish athletics -- or, as Treacy said more diplomatically last month, there are "some critical issues that need to be sorted". Critical indeed. The ISC has refused to give Athletics Ireland its 'core grant' -- the money that covers its administration costs -- until it bends to its will.

The surface dispute revolves around the non-appointment of a high performance director. Last autumn Athletics Ireland went through a professional selection process to replace Max Jones, who retired as performance director after the Olympics.

The position was advertised, a shortlist was created, candidates were interviewed and the preferred candidate -- a man with impressive international experience who has coached a number of Olympic gold medallists -- was identified. But the ISC, which had two representatives on the interviewing panel, disagreed with the choice. And so the stand-off.

The stakes, though, are far higher than the choice of candidate to lead Irish athletics towards 2012. According to people within the sport, the ISC's agenda is to force the resignation of Mary Coghlan, the young chief executive of Athletics Ireland, and replace her with an ISC insider.

Those claims have been publicly dismissed by the ISC, but it would be a reasonable conclusion to draw from its tactics. By withholding funding, the ISC could put a gun to the head of Athletics Ireland and force it to choose between its chief executive and its funding. It would be a grotesquely uneven fight.

It is, of course, entirely proper that the ISC should ensure that the taxpayers' money is being well spent before it hands it over to any sports organisation, and it is entirely proper that it should want to ensure that the best possible candidates are appointed to high-profile roles in Irish sport.

It must, however, allow individual sports to make those appointments once the candidates fulfil the proper criteria (which this candidate clearly does) and have been selected in the proper way.

As Jim McDaid said, it exists to "plan and support" the development of Irish sport, not engage in turf wars. The current dispute amounts to bullying: do our bidding, or we will starve you. Like the government that installed him, Treacy has been in power too long.

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