THE London Olympics may still be 17 months away, but the first signs of friction in Irish sport have already appeared. We are well accustomed to the faction fighting which has become the calling card of the build-up here to each Olympics, but a dust-up this far out is remarkable, even by our standards.
Last Thursday, Eamonn Coghlan had a lash at the Olympic Council of Ireland. Coghlan is unhappy that once again Irish athletes have been told that they must achieve the A standard to qualify for London. This is despite the fact that the International Association of Athletics Federations and the International Olympic Committee remain more flexible and will accept B standards. There is no such flexibility here, however.
"There are very few in Ireland who are ever going to win an Olympic gold medal, so why only pick athletes who have that potential?" he asked. "If an athlete has achieved the best B standard in Ireland then they should go. The cost of sending to London compared with Beijing is relatively little and we want to inspire, encourage and motivate the kids coming through the sport, not turn them off."
Coghlan is perfectly right in what he says, and it is right that he should speak out and bring this matter into the public domain. The only problem is that his anger may have been a little misdirected.
Twelve days ago, Athletics Ireland signed an agreement with the OCI which binds the association to this idea that its athletes must attain the A standard to qualify for the Olympics. Why AI felt the need to rush into this agreement is puzzling given there should have been no great hurry on them to do so. In fact, AI could have bided its time and signed the deal in the weeks ahead.
Even more bizarrely, the IAAF have yet to confirm what the A standards for the various events will be -- although that announcement is expected in early April -- so in effect the association has signed a blind agreement with the OCI which cannot now be undone. Of course, AI can make informed guesses as to what the A standards will be set at but the point is that it cannot be certain and it is for this reason that it has done its athletes a disservice. Many athletes will only have begun to realise the consequences of this in the last few days. The qualification period for the Olympics doesn't begin until May and runs right up to July 2012. The indecent haste to sign the agreement may come back to haunt AI if an athlete misses out on going to London by a fraction.
Coghlan was speaking at last Thursday's announcement by the Irish Sports Council of its funding packages for 2011. The fact that it had to find savings of €2.5m in its budget this year was well flagged so the main concern among NGBs and athletes was that the cuts would be applied fairly.
The council announced a total of €12.1m for the National Governing Bodies (€13.225m in 2010) and €7.8m in high performance (€8.35m in 2010). When you include the various Local Sports Partnerships the total outlay for the year is €26.4m.
In that regard, the real surprise was the size of the reduction in funds awarded to Special Olympics Ireland, down from €2.3m in 2010 to €1.5m this year, although this was seemingly due to the fact that it can call on significant reserves if needed.
The Irish Amateur Boxing Association had harboured hopes of a major increase in its core funding, in fact significantly more than the additional €65,000 which brought it up to €341,000, because of its ongoing successes on the international stage.
Its disappointment over this will have been tempered by the fact that a total of 20 boxers will receive high performance support to the tune of €472,000 making it comfortably the sport with the most representatives operating in Irish high performance.
The general feeling, however, among the majority of the sporting bodies is that the sports council's board has been even-handed in its approach to funding this year.
Of course, the board had to be mindful that because we are so far into an Olympic cycle any unnecessary tinkering could tip the scales the wrong way.
This is why there was never any real threat to allocations to key personnel who entertain genuine medal ambitions, athletes like Derval O'Rourke (pictured), Gráinne Murphy and David Gillick and boxers such as John Joe Nevin, Kenny Egan and Paddy Barnes, all of whom received the maximum €40,000. (The decision to rename this category, previously known as 'Contracted', to 'Podium' is a challenge of sorts to the 19 athletes in total who received the top amount. "Podium is the expectation. If this amount of money is invested in an athlete year after year then you expect them to deliver," said Coghlan on Thursday.)
A small point too which again perhaps shows the sports council's board is moving in the right direction: last Thursday was the first time that the three strands of funding were announced together, ie core grants, high performance grants and LSP funding.
One small criticism among NGBs of the whole process remains, however. Some sports do better than others in terms of their funding. This year, in particular, has seen recognition for those performing well, but sports not similarly rewarded need to know why they weren't judged to have performed to the same level or what they need to do to get there.
Overall, though, last Thursday was a step in the right direction.
Sunday Indo Sport