Tuesday 23 January 2018

John Greene: Funding flaws are not good for morale

John Greene

John Greene

The decision to exclude racewalker Colin Griffin from this year's funding scheme for elite athletes was a poor one.

It is fair to say that tough decisions had to be made this year, as in other years, but especially now in the current climate, and in the context of the swingeing changes the Irish Sports Council is seeking to make to the high-performance culture here. But that argument is undermined somewhat by some of the other decisions made in relation to athlete funding, which were not so tough at all.

Griffin is something of a polarising figure in Irish athletics. He is outspoken, particularly on social media, and can be extremely critical of his own association. He is very popular among his peers, perhaps less so in some other quarters. He is the son of Pádraig Griffin, an honorary vice-president of Athletics Ireland, and so is seen by some as a political figure, even if in his own world view he is simply a hard-working athlete striving to be the best that he can be.

This year's grants are the first since the Irish Sports Council committed itself to a complete overhaul of how high-performance funding will work. Over the course of the next few years, the council will be taking a step back from direct funding of athletes and handing that function over to the high-performance units within all the National Governing Bodies. This was one of the key outcomes of a review of the funding system in Ireland published late last year.

Of course, this transfer of power will be a lengthy process as many of the NGBs – most of whom it has to be said are moving in the right direction – are still not equipped with the necessary personnel or systems to implement such a major structural change.

Another element of this review was a change in the level of payments to athletes and, critically, in the criteria used to determine them. The three rigid tiers of funding will be phased out to be replaced by a more flexible scheme, and the performance bonuses will be scrapped.

Although it was noted at the time that this would not start to kick in until next year, it was left open to the council to begin that process of change sooner. The fact that this year is the start of a new Olympic cycle – something which underpins much of the funding principles at elite level – means that there was a legitimate opportunity for the council to begin that process straight away.

In that context, there are perfectly sound reasons why the claims of some athletes were ignored, and this includes Griffin (pictured). Others lost out too, the likes of sprinters Steven Colvert and Paul Hession, for example.

In general, though, the old system was still largely in play this time, which means that in the majority of cases the NGBs put forward the names of those they believe merit financial support, and these were accepted or rejected by the council on a case-by-case basis.

Taken in isolation, there is a valid argument to be made by Athletics Ireland, in the first instance, and subsequently the council, against awarding Griffin a place on the high-performance carding scheme in 2013. It was reported, for instance, that he has a history of getting disqualified in races, and that this counted against him.

Griffin has a different take on it. He qualified for the Olympics, and has also qualified for this year's World Championships in Moscow.

Sport can be cruel. The breaks can go for or against you, and so you could say Griffin was unlucky, because such is the sporting life and you have to learn to deal with that. Hard luck son, on another day the result might have been different. Big decisions, though, must be made across the board. There has to be consistency. There is certainly a place for informed opinion, why else have high-performance managers and directors? But this all assumes a level playing pitch.

If Griffin was excluded because he has an unhappy tendency of being disqualified, albeit in an event notorious for this, then what is Tori Pena doing on the list? Or if he was excluded, as was reported, because he had been assessed on his last five years, then again, what is Tori Pena doing on the list? The pole vaulter has failed abysmally at three of her last four major championship appearances.

And if elite funding is about helping to unlock potential in competition this year, what is Kenny Egan doing on the list? Egan has announced his retirement from boxing, and has been earmarked for a coaching role. It is not as well known as its other projects, but the sports council does have a small fund for high-performance coaching and this is where Egan's grant should be sourced from.

And there are other flaws in the funding list too, notably in boxing and cycling, which can be legitimately questioned.

This makes the process flawed, because there should be no element of doubt. If an athlete is excluded for what are genuinely held to be solid reasons, then those need to be applied to others too. That didn't happen here, and that damages the process.

Griffin will probably receive funding directly from Athletics Ireland's high-performance budget to help him prepare for Moscow. But Irish sport needs to get to a place where its elite athletes are focused on performance, and not on other matters. With all the progress that is being made in a host of areas, high-profile spats like this one are bad for everyone, and bad for morale too.

Wider cuts not so deep

The greatest focus on the Irish Sports Council's annual spend invariably falls on its high-performance funding to athletes. Ultimately, however, this only accounts for a fraction – less than five per cent in fact – of the council's budget.

Indeed, the €8m due to be spent on high-performance sport is less than 20 per cent of the council's €43m budget for 2013.

The rest goes largely towards participation, and allowing sporting bodies to strengthen and grow. It is true that there was a cut this year, but it seems to have been well managed. The country's 31 local sports partnerships, for example, may have been fearful for the future but most held onto their funding, some even had it increased. This is money – over €5.5m – which goes directly towards participation projects.

The 59 governing bodies receive €11.4m, which includes over €0.5m for women in sport initiatives, and the big three (the GAA, IRFU and FAI) receive around €7.8m, earmarked for youth development.

And most of which is money well spent.


Irish Independent

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