Sunday 22 September 2019

Irish sport must cast its net far and wide to progress on all fronts

'O'Donovan admitted that the difference in how high-performance athletes are funded in the two countries was a stand-out feature.' Photo: Tom Burke
'O'Donovan admitted that the difference in how high-performance athletes are funded in the two countries was a stand-out feature.' Photo: Tom Burke

John Greene

In March of last year, Patrick O'Donovan went to New Zealand. Ostensibly, he was one of many government ministers on the move as Ireland spread its wings around the world for the annual St Patrick's Day hoedown but O'Donovan had ulterior motives.

"While there are many things which fascinate me about the Kiwi nation, I went contemplating two in particular: what I could learn about New Zealand's success in terms of their high-performance sporting programmes, and the country's recent hosting of the Rugby World Cup," wrote O'Donovan in this paper when he returned.

The less said about the latter the better. But comparisons between Ireland and New Zealand in sporting terms are common. New Zealand is now regularly held up as an example for Ireland to follow - similar population, similar climate, one sport dominating the landscape, a huge interest in sport across the population . . .

But it is there that the similarities appear to end. New Zealand won 18 medals at the last Olympics, exceeding their target, while Ireland won two. The 18 medals were across a range of sports - athletics, sailing, canoeing, rowing, golf, sevens rugby and shooting. That's the kind of excellence and diversity that at the moment seems some way beyond this country's grasp.

O'Donovan admitted that the difference in how high-performance athletes are funded in the two countries was a stand-out feature. "What struck me most was the timing of the funding: in New Zealand, funding for high-performance athletes is decided years in advance, using a tiered system which targets sports which they think will be most successful," he wrote.

"Here, our budgets for elite athletes are decided shortly before the beginning of the year with a clear emphasis on sports that have been successful in the past. While some years have been more successful than others, maybe it is time to take a more long-term view to ensure that the giant efforts of our sportsmen and women are acknowledged and they are given a real chance to be victorious on the most demanding stages. Due to the massive participation that we have nurtured in Ireland, we have a huge pool of talent - now it's a case of helping them succeed."

A few months later, O'Donovan was moved on to a new post, leaving behind a familiar, sinking feeling of another wasted opportunity for Irish sport. Yet, a succession of sports ministers, including the current one, Brendan Griffin, have said they favour multi-annual funding for sport. The Taoiseach has also expressed support for it. So why hasn't it happened? Who, or what, is holding it up?

New Zealand also boasts a proud record of fostering participation at grassroots level so the focus there is not just on the 'elite'. There does not appear to be an obsession with medals at the expense of the bigger picture - that of striving to create a more active, healthier society.

Ireland has definitely improved but it is largely on the back of the efforts of the various sporting organisations and programmes they run, or those run by Sport Ireland and the local sports partnerships. There are still huge problems, however, as the State has singularly failed people, especially children, because when it comes to physical health there is still no coherent policy that straddles the government departments that matter - sport, education, health, social welfare, finance, children and youth affairs.

We are told the publication of the National Sports Policy is imminent - but it has been a long time coming. And even when it is published, what is the level of preparedness among those government departments? How quickly can they swing into action?

On Thursday, two senior figures in the New Zealand sporting revolution will be in Dublin to tell their story. Peter Miskimmin, CEO of Sport New Zealand, and Geoff Barry, general manager of community sport and recreation at Sport New Zealand, will also meet Minister Griffin and department of sport officials, and other senior figures during their visit.

Miskimmin, a two-time Olympian and former captain of the men's hockey team, and Barry will be in Dublin to speak at the Federation of Irish Sport's annual conference in Trinity College, when the question will be asked: What can we learn from New Zealand?

The conference will be attended by representatives from all of the country's sporting bodies and it is also open to members of the public.

"What we're trying to get across is not New Zealand good, Ireland bad," says Mary O'Connor, the federation's CEO, of this week's conference. "What we're trying to get across is New Zealand have got a few things right, and we've been compared to them by the Taoiseach in his election manifesto, when he said they should be our benchmark. They've got one dominant sport in New Zealand which is rugby; our dominant sport is obviously Gaelic games, but they are still able to be successful in other ones.

"We're also trying to say that success isn't just about medals, it's about physical activity and participation. We want to give people here an opportunity to say, well this is their story, this is what they've done; are there things that we can implement from their plans, their strategies that were successful for them?"

New Zealand's approach to sport, and participation in sport, has been very focused. The country has worked hard to see where and how it can best influence the choices people make around sport and exercise in the first instance, and how best it can then keep them active. Investment is critical, obviously, but ultimately a major part of its success comes from investing time and resources in people.

"Irish sport has been very resilient," adds O'Connor. "Because of the economic climate, unfortunately we had a recession and it had a knock-on effect on Irish sport because of public funding. Now it's time with the economy turning to resource Irish sport. The government, to be fair, have put their money where their mouth is in terms of infrastructure and the sports capital programme, but there's no point in having a high-class infrastructure unless we invest in people and programmes."

Irish sport is on a journey, and still has a lot to learn. And we should be prepared to cast the net as wide as possible to help along the way.

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