Friday 15 November 2019

Increasing income for athletics the key for new CEO Adams

Hamish Adams jumps into the Athletics Ireland hot seat today as he begins work as its new CEO after five years at the helm of Rowing Ireland Photo: Sportsfile
Hamish Adams jumps into the Athletics Ireland hot seat today as he begins work as its new CEO after five years at the helm of Rowing Ireland Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

It's the most important job in Irish athletics, but aside from some distant memories of his youth, the man about to take command has no background in the sport. For Hamish Adams, however, that won't be an issue.

The New Zealand native today takes the baton from John Foley as CEO of Athletics Ireland, having spent the past five years as CEO of Rowing Ireland and two decades before that working in professional rugby.

And while interviews about sports governance typically rank up there with airline safety demonstrations for audience interest, they're important all the same, so bear with me.

The one thing we can say for sure about the association Adams is acquiring: it's in much better shape than the malfunctioning mess that greeted Foley on his arrival in 2009.

A legal action taken by former CEO Mary Coghlan after her dismissal in the wake of in-fighting left the association with a deficit of almost €400,000 in 2010, but the financial ship has since been steadied by Foley.

"He's given me a very solid organisation to take over and for that, I'm extremely grateful," says Adams. "I've known John for a long time, he's been very supportive in terms of the handover and I'd like to think I'm a safe pair of hands and will continue the success."

Membership has more than doubled during Foley's eight years in charge, surpassing 60,000 for the first time last November, and Adams is confident he can keep that ticking upwards while also keeping a handle on the various moving parts of his new role.

"It's a huge membership, which is a credit to John and the staff and everyone in athletics. The key challenges are to continue to resource that, to grow the income of the organisation so we can do more for our members and also establish a high-performance programme that is consistently on the podium."

Reduction Athletics Ireland topped the list in Sport Ireland funding this year, receiving €887,000 in core grant funding and €790,000 for its high-performance programme. Given the latter figure is a €45,000 reduction from 2017, Adams is adamant that alternative sources of revenue will be explored to ensure athletes don't feel the brunt.

"I have some ideas but I won't go into the specifics of them," he says. "We need to create more joint ventures and diversification of income streams is key. Long gone are the days when you could primarily rely on the income streams from Sport Ireland. They have limited budgets as well."

The lack of professional coaching structures has been a chronic complaint in athletics, but Adams says it's too early to say how that particular puzzle will be solved: "Come back to me in a few weeks' time once I've learned the full picture. I'm on the outside looking in at the moment."

In athletics the saying goes that you're only as good as your last race, and when looking at Adams' career the progression of Rowing Ireland, in both quantity and quality, bodes well for athletics.

"We doubled our turnover in five years which is a good illustration of how we're grown as an organisation," he says. "The other thing I'm very proud of is the 'Get Going, Get Rowing' programme that's created participation opportunities for 25,000 kids in 2017."

The highlight of his term, of course, was the Olympic medal won by Paul and Gary O'Donovan in August 2016.

"We bumped through a ceiling when they achieved that and it's paved the way for further success," he says. "We've become consistent medal winners from junior to senior level."

Given the global nature of athletics, similar successes are less likely in Adams' new sport, where the relationship between funding and medals is not as straightforward. But that's not to say it's irrelevant.

For proof he only has to look to his native New Zealand, a country of comparable size that won four athletics medals at the last Olympics. Ireland has won two in the past 30 years.

"There is very high expectations placed on all international athletes but you've got to temper that with the level of investment," says Adams. "The investment in New Zealand sport is about five times that of Irish Olympic sport so it is difficult to compare."

As a teenager, Adams dabbled in athletics before gravitating towards rugby, the sport in which he would spend the majority of his career. "We're all athletes first before we specialise in any sport," he says. "As kids, you run, jump, throw so I believe the athletics attributes are fundamental to all sports."


He both played and worked in professional rugby in New Zealand and England before moving to Ireland with his wife in 2000, taking a job with Dolphin Rugby Club in Cork.

That led to a role in the Munster Academy in 2004 before he moved on to the Irish Rugby Union Players Association in 2008, where he remained for five years. Despite his lack of experience in athletics, he believes it'll be a far less intimidating jump than the one he made from rugby to rowing in 2013.

"I'll adapt very, very quickly to the business of athletics and what's required," he says.

"I understand the principles of sport very well, I have a sports science background and I'm very experienced in running the business of sport. It was a much bigger transition going from rugby to rowing and I was able to adapt to that very quickly. I can take the best out of those organisations and apply it to Athletics Ireland."

But surely, as he steps into his new role, there must be some feeling of apprehension? Quite the opposite.

"I'm excited to be involved in the Athletics Ireland team, there's a great bunch of people there who are passionate about sport," he says. "It's great to be part of something so positive. Onwards and upwards."

Irish Independent

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