Sunday 18 February 2018

John Greene: It's time to ask questions about the talent drain from elite Irish sport


David Conway is leaving his position at Sport Ireland Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
David Conway is leaving his position at Sport Ireland Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
John Greene

John Greene

David Conway will leave his position in Sport Ireland next month. The name won't ring a bell with many, but he has played a very important role in Irish sport over the last 13 years, as a key figure in turning the National Sports Campus in west Dublin from idea into reality.

Conway was chief executive of the National Sports Campus Development Authority until the establishment of Sport Ireland merged the authority with the Irish Sports Council. His most recent accomplishment was the completion of the National Indoor Arena, which has already welcomed 40,000 people through its doors since it opened at the end of January. The campus has developed at pace in recent years, thanks to government funding commitment and Conway's experience and expertise in project management.

On Friday, a spokesperson for Sport Ireland said: "David's contribution to the success of the Campus and the future success of Irish sport through his hard work and vision is immeasurable." So, Conway leaves having performed some service to Irish sport.

So too Gary Keegan, the recently-departed head of the Irish Institute of Sport, now known as the Sport Ireland Institute. Keegan is seen as a man apart in developing effective high performance systems for athletes. He is also largely credited with setting up the boxing programme which delivered so much success over the last decade.

Keegan and Conway have been lost from Irish sport to the private sector, and they are big losses given their track records of creating an environment for athletes to succeed: one helped put in place the means for athletes to reach their potential; the other helped put in place an arena for them to do it in.

Keegan's replacement in boxing, Billy Walsh, joined the US boxing team in a blaze of controversy in late 2015. Then, in February, another member of boxing's high performance team, Eddie Bolger, left to take up a position as head coach of the German team. Bolger had worked in Joe Ward's corner, among others.

The two departures from boxing bookended a terrible Olympic Games for the sport, and it can't be a coincidence either that there has been an exodus to the professional ranks of some of our best amateurs.

Boxing was the highest-funded high performance sport in 2016, receiving €900,000 from Sport Ireland, but it is clear now the full effect Walsh's departure had on the high performance programme in the run-up to Rio. This is what can happen, indeed what is likely to happen, with the exit of talent from key positions in organisations. High performance directors, performance directors and chief executives play vital roles in generating success.

Kevin Ankrom left his post as high performance director at Athletics Ireland last October and his replacement, Paul McNamara, has just been announced. Athletics was the second-highest-funded sport in 2016, receiving a high performance grant of €810,000.

Paralympics Ireland came next - and its chief executive Liam Harbison was confirmed as the new head of the Sports Institute last December, replacing Keegan. Harbison's replacement, Miriam Malone, was announced last month.

One of Harbison's first jobs will be to look for a replacement for Caroline McManus, the highly regarded physiologist who left the Institute in February to take up a position working with New Zealand's rowing team.

Sailing was the next-highest-funded sport, and performance director James O'Callaghan is still in place after a good showing in Rio, topped by Annalise Murphy's silver medal.

Then comes swimming, and Jon Rudd was appointed the new performance director of Swim Ireland in November. In the same month, Horse Sport Ireland's chief executive Damian McDonald announced he was leaving to become director general of the IFA.

Rowing Ireland's high performance director resigned in January. Dane Morten Espersen had overseen the programme since 2012 and, of course, the success of the O'Donovan brothers in Rio was one of the stories of last year. The association also has a new head coach.

So, in the last year and a bit, six of the eight top-funded sports have had major changes in key personnel. In the case of the Sport Ireland Institute, there have been two major changes. Furthermore, Triathlon Ireland - which returned two athletes in the top 10 at Rio and is seen by many as a sport which gives good bang for its buck - also appointed a new high performance director after the Olympics.

Beneath the surface, there has been a drain of talent at the elite end of Irish sport underway for some time. The difficulties of the Olympic Council of Ireland during and after Rio served to mask this to some degree, as did the enduring images created by the likes of the O'Donovan brothers, Murphy and Thomas Barr.

This is not to argue that change in any organisation or system is bad; indeed, a certain amount of turnover is not only acceptable, it's probably necessary for continued improvement. But even allowing for that, this seems an unusually high attrition rate. And the cumulative knock-on effects can be significant, including leading to a delay in getting an Olympic cycle properly up and running, or worse still, losing talented young athletes during the changeover due to a lack of resources or a lack of focus.

It may be that this is a perfect storm as Irish sporting organisations continue to become more attuned to the high performance atmosphere; or there may be more to it. We don't know. Are questions being asked?

Sport Ireland's Rio review was published earlier this month and it is an honest and fair-minded effort to look at Ireland's Olympic cycle - warts and all.

And the review has identified this growing concern, stating: "There are problems at transition stages along the athlete pathway, with athletes being lost. There is a leadership talent drain, with high performers within our HP system being lost to other countries and systems, and a lack of investment in talent, both at a coaching and PD level. The feeling is that, having made huge advances, the time is right now to again update the HP strategy for Ireland, and to deliver a renewed shared vision across the system."

At the heart of the problem is proper resourcing, including funding. There are moves to introduce multi-annual funding for high performance sport, which would be a very positive step, but on its own it won't be near enough. It's not purely a funding matter. It doesn't help that sport remains dwarfed by being in the same portfolio as transport, with its massive budget, and even bigger problems. As someone said to me recently, our talented leaders in sport don't go on strike, they just go somewhere else.

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