Sunday 20 October 2019

John Greene: Raising the bar to new heights

We're finally getting to grips with the concept of high performance - and it's paying dividends

Rhys McClenaghan’s gold medal at the European Championships was a breakthrough moment for Irish gymnastics. Photo: Sportsfile
Rhys McClenaghan’s gold medal at the European Championships was a breakthrough moment for Irish gymnastics. Photo: Sportsfile

John Greene

For a few days in August 2004 the hits were coming hard. Everyone took aim. As the Olympics in Athens were drawing to a close, the Irish team had fallen apart and questions were being asked.

Eamonn Coghlan said Irish athletics was "a joke"; Nick O'Hare said our swimmers would have to move abroad to have any chance of success; Pat Hickey said the "horrific" results must lead to a rethink on sports funding, and while he was at it he took a swipe at sailing; Jerry Kiernan, on RTÉ, said the runner James Nolan was a "dilettante", and Nolan, in reply, said Kiernan was an "asshole".

In this paper, Tommy Conlon noted that "the disappointments were coming thick and fast", adding that "everywhere you looked Irish competitors were collapsing under the occasion".

Even the politicians got involved, as then sports minister John O'Donoghue found himself under fire and trying to straddle both sides of the debate - sharing the national mood of annoyance while also defending our high performance strategy.

Irish sport, it seemed, had reached a nadir.

Certainly our sporting landscape was a bit of a basket case. The government was investing money in sport but the high performance culture evident in so many other countries was still only in its infancy here and expectations that a pot of money would yield instant results were utterly unrealistic.

Events in Athens made it clear that Irish sport still had a significant journey to travel. The problem was that many of the organisations charged with leading sport into a supposedly bright new future were terribly ill-equipped to do so. There was a lack of expertise, a lack of knowledge and a lack of direction, and weighed down by old structures and bad habits, they were either slow to embrace new ways, or resistant to change altogether.

Talented athletes complaining about their governing body was a constant feature of the Irish Olympic experience, while the sporting scene in general was at times crippled by feuding, power struggles and division at all levels. Occasionally, an athlete of supreme ability would somehow shirk off the baggage to excel at a major championship but this only papered over the cracks as we carried on regardless. This, largely, was the story of Irish sport on the international stage.

The high performance concept in Ireland is new. It was introduced in the early noughties and we have been playing catch-up since. While well over €100m has been invested by the State, its development has been partly trial and error - learning to understand what works, or doesn't work for us - and partly evolutionary as we strive to keep abreast of modern advancements and learn from other countries.

After the publication of a review of Ireland's performance in Athens, which essentially found that the country was on the right road in terms of its ambition to have a properly functioning high performance system, John O'Donoghue addressed the issue: "We have invested substantially in sport but we started behind others and it will take time to catch up," he said in March 2005. "There must be a focus on junior and developing athletes. That is the correct way to go, but it does not produce instant dividends."

Change has been slow, but it has been happening. We now insist on proper governance in each organisation; on more transparency around funding; on more responsibility resting with energetic executive branches and less on clunky board structures; and, on workable high performance plans for each sport. None of this is headline-grabbing stuff, and there have been hiccups along the road (think of the problems which have beset boxing, for instance), but it is starting to have an impact.

O'Donoghue's prediction that we were around 10 years behind countries of comparative size, like New Zealand, wasn't too far off the mark. The seeds of change sown over 15 years ago are starting to bear fruit. We are half-way through an Olympic cycle - still two years out from Tokyo - and there's a perceptible buzz around Irish sport. What's more, the public is taking notice.

The performances this summer of our athletes across a range of sports at the European Championships, the women's hockey team at the World Cup, our young athletes at the world under 20 championships, our young boxers in various championships and our Paralympic athletes has signalled a significant shift in our fortunes. More and more, across a number of sports, we are producing a new breed of athlete who appears better equipped to deal with the pressures of competing on the international stage.

As a case in point, take gymnastics and Rhys McClenaghan's achievement in winning Ireland's first medal in that sport at the European Championships. We do not have a tradition in gymnastics and yet here is a guy who blitzed his opposition on the pommel horse. Leaving aside McClenaghan's obvious talent and determination to succeed, the difference now is that he is supported by Sport Ireland financially and his governing body, Gymastics Ireland, is a shining example of the brave new world of Irish sport. It is a dynamic association, led by CEO Ciaran Gallagher, who not only has international experience but an energy and vision to grow the sport. This has been done patiently from the bottom up, increasing participation rates to the point that many clubs have become over-subscribed. Gymastics has been talked about for some time now as a coming sport, and McClenaghan more than proved this to be the case.

When you look at the sporting organisations which have totally rebuilt themselves and embraced the high performance culture, learning from other associations and also from other countries, a clear picture of the state of Irish sport begins to emerge. Gymnastics is to the forefront; so too are Paralympics Ireland, Swim Ireland, Cricket Ireland, the Irish Sailing Association, and, increasingly, the sports of rowing, athletics and boxing. These are showing what can be achieved when you get your house in order. We are also performing well at modern pentathlon, and showing improvement in other sports like basketball and badminton.

One thing all of these sports have in common is that they have worked hard to make their national governing body fit for purpose in the first instance, and then in identifying and developing young talent. A constant criticism of the Irish system is that we do not have enough coaches to nurture that talent and take us to the next level. This is being addressed, as recent results have shown, but you can never have enough good coaches with the skillset needed to help maximise our talent base.

Then there is the National Sports Campus. It's still finding its feet, but it is already a success. As more and more sports migrate there it should become a fertile breeding ground for a high performance culture, with athletes from a variety of sports mixing and sharing their experiences. The facilities and the support systems are being put in place too.

The idea that our small population allied to the dominance of Gaelic games was holding us back in international sport has been exposed as something of a self-deception. We were holding ourselves back.

We still have a way to travel, but at least we have reached the foothills - at least we are getting better all the time. The successes of the last few months have raised the bar again. They have also raised the levels of expectation and created a sense that there is more to come, up to and including Tokyo. We can reasonably expect to see Irish athletes and Irish teams competing more regularly at the business end of championships. We may or may not be celebrating more medals in 2020, but whatever happens we are unlikely to see a repeat of Athens and the bad old days.

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