Friday 23 February 2018

Blueprint must put sport on centre stage

The creation of a lasting policy for Irish sport is a move that warrants support, writes John Greene

Leo Varadkar TD, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport
Leo Varadkar TD, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport
John Greene

John Greene

A major step forward in this country's attitude to sport and physical activity has been taken with the news that a new national plan will be drawn up which will take account of the wider role sport plays in areas such as health, education and the economy.

It mightn't sound like it's much of a deal, and it's probably going to take some time to implement, but it is an important development. For the first time, this country will have a meaningful policy for sport and exercise which will bring greater consistency to government spending and activity in terms of sport.

The Government's masterplan for sport has been included among its priorities and will be published later this year. And given that a new entity known as Sport Ireland -- essentially a merger of the Irish Sports Council, which is responsible for promoting participation and for leading out on elite sport, and the National Sports Campus Development Authority, which looks after the campus at Abbotstown and Morton Stadium in Santry -- is also due to be established this year.

What is encouraging about this intention to create a lasting direction and policy for Irish sport is that the two ministers, Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring, have involved other key Government departments. Following initial discussions, a working group co-chaired by the Departments of Health and Sport has now been established and work has begun in developing a national physical activity plan.

Ireland has been taking steps to get up to speed on international standards and although there is still a way to go, there has been a noticeable acceleration in the last few years -- and mostly, it has to be said, in the right direction.

The Irish Sports Council's new policy and procedures on carding and funding effectively come into force this month. The associations governing athletics, sailing and swimming are leading out on this; they are the first three to be deemed fit by the council to assume greater financial control for their high performance programmes. By the end of next year, the hope is that most of the other associations will have followed suit.

Most of the country's sporting organisations are either getting on board with all these changes by putting in place suitably qualified high performance directors and producing fit-for-purpose strategic plans and performance plans. Those few that aren't engaged in this changing environment will soon feel a chill wind as they find themselves being left well behind the pack, facing the likely prospect of being cut off.

There are certainly still some issues around the funding process -- and there has been a lot of disquiet from some very high-profile athletes in the last few weeks on this subject -- and while it's understandable that there will always be an element of this, it doesn't change the fact that a lot of these difficulties are easily avoidable.

The Institute of Sport, now overseen by Gary Keegan, a true revolutionary in Irish sport, has credibility among elite athletes, something which scarcely would have seemed possible just five years ago.

There has been some political progress too, not near enough, but this latest development is a hugely positive step. It should have happened years ago, but this country being the way it is, we pumped hundreds of millions into sport for 15 years -- in an almost reckless fashion at times -- before we reached this point where it was decided it would be a good idea to actually put a masterplan in place. So some credit must go to the two ministers Varadkar and Ring.

According to the Department of Sport, this plan will look to "answer some key questions about sport which have never been asked, such as why is the State involved in sport in the first place". And, "is there a good balance between spending on elite athletes, funding for NGBs [national governing bodies], and spending on grassroots sport?" Questions which have in fact been asked many times over the years, but which until now mostly fell on deaf ears.

What's needed now is for others to understand the importance of this, and get on board. Senior figures in other Government departments and agencies must sign up to the masterplan. It's not enough to just be involved in discussions. They will need to buy into it.

At the moment the Department of Sport looks after sports activities, the Department of Education has responsibility for sport in schools and the promotion of physical activity, in its various guises, falls under the Department of Health, and also local authorities (which are run by the Department of the Environment). And all the money comes from the Department of Finance. Imagine if everybody started singing from the same hymn sheet at that level.

The greater efficiencies of scale would mean that there would be a more focused approach to projects and, ultimately, a greater return on Government investment. This is because significant improvements have taken place in recent years at implementation level across the country, and many state arms and voluntary organisations are well placed to deliver schemes to the grassroots. All of which means there would ultimately be more money available to spend on sport and physical activity.

As Ring said last week, there have been years of waste and duplication and things must change. "It's about more than winning medals," he said, "it's about a unified approach to sport and physical activity, it's about getting people active, it's about promoting a healthy society and it's about all of us working together to deliver that."

If it is to be a credible blueprint, this plan will have to make sport more central to Government policy formation. Too often sport has suffered in this country at the hands of lazy stereotyping from politicians and civil servants.

Irish Independent

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