Sunday 18 February 2018

It's a good thing to want to be better

The Irish Sports Council's review of last year's Olympic performance is an extensive piece of work. But when it was published four days ago, the spotlight was immediately shone on two sports: athletics and boxing, both of which came in for criticism.

And yet, they were not the only ones criticised – because across all 15 of the sports examined, weaknesses were noted, some more serious than others, including in cycling, rowing and tennis.

First things first, though. The 'Debrief From 2012 Olympic Games' is broadly positive on the direction Irish sport is taking. It found substantial improvement in the four-year cycle leading up to and including the London Games when compared to previous cycles.

This improvement can be seen in the "sophistication and quality of ISC-funded performance programmes"; in the "response to the higher demands being made" by the council of the national governing bodies (NGBs); and in the "quality of support being supplied by the Irish Institute of Sport".

It is also fair to say that improvement was acknowledged across the individual sports too. The report confirms, in fact, what is generally accepted: that more and more NGBs are buying into the need to improve their structures. And this just does not apply to high-performance, but also to governance, human resources and communication.

Irish sport is going through a time of unprecedented change. Some sporting bodies are developing quicker than others and this difference becomes evident at major championships. As the report notes: "Some sports have clearly-defined strategies, effective relationships, shared objectives and an understanding of how to achieve career peaks at major events. In others, the foundations have been laid and it is now a case of seeing it through. In a third group, however, there is not yet a fully functioning system to produce a consistent flow of talented individuals."

Many still face internal resistance to change and this is something which comes through time and again in the report, although at times assumptions are made in this area which are open to question – and which should have been queried by the council and its board prior to signing off on it.

The relationship between the sports council and the OCI has been fraught at times but it was obvious in the lead-up to, and throughout, the London Games that a better understanding had been developed between the two bodies. This contributed to a more harmonious atmosphere during the games within 'Team Ireland'.

Athletes too noted this improved spirit of co-operation and its benefits, which included almost unanimous approval of the level of organisation. The report notes: "The vast majority of those consulted considered the 2012 Games to be a much better experience than they could recall at any other major event. Lensbury/St Mary's University [where the majority of the team was based] was a success and experienced athletes said it was the best holding camp they had been to."

The sports covered by the report are athletics, badminton, boxing, canoeing, clay pigeon shooting, cycling, equestrian sport, hockey, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, swimming, tennis and triathlon. Only tennis and hockey did not feature in London. In putting this report together, a total of 122 people across the 15 sports were interviewed.

And while there are valid criticisms outlined across all the sports, the report itself is not immune from criticism either, because while it is extensive it is not always thorough. Even within the well-publicised criticisms of athletics and boxing, there are, in my opinion, flaws.

Take the section on athletics, for example, which for the most part is an excellent assessment of where the sport is at – and Athletics Ireland deserves credit here for insisting that it be subjected to additional scrutiny in order to learn from its mistakes.

At one point, though, the report notes: "The lack of media objectivity about athletics in Ireland is a strategic issue. The fact is that, despite the absence of medals, 50 per cent of Ireland's athletes achieved personal bests at the Games. This compares to 29 per cent of European athletes." Fair enough, athletics often gets a bad press, but just four of Ireland's athletes achieved PBs in London, well below the report's claim, and below the European average. Statements like this only undermine other important observations.

Another example can be seen in the idea that some of the criticism by athletes and coaches of the current high-performance set-up in Athletics Ireland is "a perspective of convenience for those who, for whatever reason, do not wish the new approach to running high-performance athletics in Ireland to succeed as they would prefer to retain the existing status quo" is not backed up. It's a claim that does not allow for the fact that some clearly do not have an issue with change, only with the manner of change. They may be right, they may well be wrong, but they most certainly are not resistant to an improved high-performance set-up and this was a careless throwaway line.

Ultimately, though, there are a host of recommendations – the majority of which make sense and for those NGBs striving to progress, they are easily implementable.

Other recommendations are open to challenge, however. For instance, it is advised in both athletics and boxing that the high-performance directors in both sports – Kevin Ankrom and Billy Walsh – are often hampered by their own associations' high-performance committees. This is particularly noted in boxing, where the report says that Walsh (pictured) sometimes has "to work around rather than with the NGB". But rather than calling for the committees to be disbanded and creating a vacuum, a better suggestion would be that the likes of Walsh and other high-performance directors could have a committee made up of experts in the area, as opposed to the current widely used system of using elected delegates.

This, to my mind, would be the best of both worlds.

Two further issues that crop up time and again are the need for improved communications and better resources. There are a number of recommendations to improve communications problems, including media training for athletes, but the second problem, a lack of resources, runs much deeper. It is easy to say we need more money to win more medals, but the reality is that year on year the money being spent on sport is reducing. NGBs will need to find other ways to generate revenue.

There is a lot of ground covered, and it's certain that all those featured in the report will take a lot from it. And that has to be a good thing.

Irish Independent

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